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Oil train crash and fire causes evacuation of two towns in West Virginia

17 February 2015

Two West Virginia towns have been evacuated after a freight train carrying crude oil derailed and burst into flames on February 16. Train operator CSX said in a statement that one person was being treated for potential inhalation of fumes, but no other injuries were reported. Around 200 residents of the settlements of Adena Village and Boomer Bottom were evacuated, local media said.

Train fire - Image:TSB
Train fire - Image:TSB

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin issued a state of emergency for Kanawha and Fayette counties after the derailment.

The train consisted of two locomotives and 109 rail cars and was travelling from North Dakota to Yorktown, Virginia, when it derailed in this rural coal mining area. At least 14 cars burst into flames, one fell into the Kanawha River and one ran into a house before catching fire.

Local websites showed images of flames at times twice the height of nearby trees and a thick plume of black smoke near a partly frozen river.

Lawrence Messina of the State Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety told the BBC the car that fell into the river is leaking oil. State emergency response and environmental officials are present at the scene.

West Virginia American Water shut down a water treatment plant, located three miles away an hour after the derailment, spokeswoman Laura Jordan said. The plant serves about 2,000 customers.

Heavy snow was reported in the area, although it is unclear whether this contributed to the crash. The snow and low temperatures were hindering efforts to deal with the incident, local media said.

This is the second significant oil-train incident in three days. The last was on February 14 when a Canadian National Railways train from Alberta's oil sands derailed in a wooded area of northern Ontario. CN said 29 of 100 cars were involved and seven caught fire. No injuries were reported, but the cars were still on fire two days later.

Last April, another CSX train bound for the Plains oil terminal in Yorktown derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia.

A boom in oil shipments by rail and a spate of derailments across North America have put heightened focus on rail safety. In 2013, 47 people were killed in the Quebec town of Lac-M├ęgantic after a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded.

The latest incidents should refocus attention on US and Canadian regulators' efforts to improve the safety of such shipments, which have spurred concerns over both the flammability of very light oil from the North Dakota Bakken shale as well as the flawed design of older tank cars.

The US Transportation Department has submitted a proposal to the White House to require adding an extra 1/8th inch of steel to most existing oil train tank shells, while new models would be made with thicker shells.

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