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Crude oil train derails and explodes in Virginia

02 May 2014

On April 30, part of Lynchburg, Virginia, was evacuated after a crude oil train derailed and several cars leaked, causing an explosion and fire with flames shooting 100 feet into the air. The cause of the derailment is not yet known. The city of Lynchburg website said no injuries were reported and that 13 or 14 tanker cars out of a total of 105 were involved in the derailment. 

Stock image
Stock image

Train owner CSX Corp said the train was travelling at 24 mph when it derailed, well under the new limit of 40 mph introduced for crude trains in high-risk urban areas after the Lac-Mégantic disaster in Quebec last June, where  47 people were killed and the town centre destroyed.

The crude oil, from North Dakota, was being sent by rail to Yorktown, Virginia, CSX said. A new oil-train terminal opened there in December, where oil is loaded on barges and shipped to East Coast refineries.

Both railroads and regulators have taken steps to improve safety as crude-by-rail transportation increases across North America. The Federal Railroad Administration inspected the stretch of track through Lynchburg in January. Railroads have also agreed as of July 1 to reroute some trains carrying crude so that they bypass well-populated areas.

In the US, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration measures to be introduced could require a massive phaseout or retrofit of older tank cars. Regulators won't discuss details of the package until they are published in the federal register, which can take months, Bloomberg reported.

New Canadian tank-car regulations are now tougher than those in the US, with 5,000 older tank cars now banned, and owners required to replace or retrofit another 65,000 cars. US regulators, in a February emergency order, prohibited the use of approximately 1,100 tank cars.

In mid-April,  National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman held a two-day safety forum in Washington on the topic of oil train accidents, of which there have been several in the last few years.

Hersman said the Obama administration needed to take immediate steps to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents. The Transportation Department was in the midst of drafting regulations to toughen standards for tank cars used to transport oil and ethanol, as well as other steps prevent or mitigate accidents. But there isn't time to wait for the cumbersome federal rulemaking process, which often takes many years to complete, to run its normal course, Hersman said.

"We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly," she told reporters at the conclusion of a two-day forum the board held on the rail transport of oil and ethanol. "There is a very high risk here that hasn't been addressed."

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