Latest derailment: Selkirk, NY – cause pinned down, anxiety lingers

Repost from The Times Union, Albany NY

Derailment’s cause pinned down, but anxiety lingers

By Brian Nearing, October 23, 2014
Railcars are derailed Wednesday night, Oct. 23, 2014, at the CSX yard in Selkirk, N.Y. (Sheriff Craig Apple)
Railcars are derailed Wednesday night, Oct. 23, 2014, at the CSX yard in Selkirk, N.Y. (Sheriff Craig Apple)

A misplaced piece of safety equipment triggered the slow-motion derailment of 18 railroad cars overnight at the spawling Selkirk rail yard, the state Department of Transportation said Thursday.

Eighteen cars — two of which had been earlier emptied of highly explosive propane — derailed about 7:40 p.m. at the sprawling Selkirk yard, which can handle thousands of freight cars a day for rail company CSX and is a critical transit gateway to much of the Northeast. No cars ruptured or spilled, and no one was hurt.

State transportation investigators said the mishap was caused by safety equipment — called a derailer — inadvertently left on the tracks by a crew that had been making repairs. A derailer is meant to protect workers by blocking trains from running over them.

Another worker elsewhere later began using a remote-controlled engine to move freight cars slowly around the yard, unaware the derailer was in the path of the oncoming cars, according to a DOT statement.

“The remote control operator was moving freight cars onto that section of track when they ran into the derailer, pushing them off the tracks. Investigators believe the remote control operator was initially unaware of what was happening and continued to move the cars down the track, causing more to derail,” according to DOT.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy said the accident, coming days after a liquid propane spill at a tank farm near a sprawling interstate highway intersection, shows the Capital Region is “dancing with the devil” as fossil fuel-laden trains surge through from the Midwest.

Fifteen of the cars in Selkirk had been righted by Thursday afternoon, said CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle. He said four cars were classified for hazardous materials, including two for propane, as well as one containing residue of a chemical herbicide and another containing an industrial acid.

Doolittle said “several of the remaining cars were empty, and none of the other cars contained any hazardous freight.” He said the accident was not causing backups or delays elsewhere on CSX lines.

A vocal opponent of a surge of crude oil rail shipments from North Dakota that are arriving daily in Albany, some carried by CSX, McCoy said the rail company was “downplaying” the mishap and “making it sound like less than it was.” He and Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple went to the yard Wednesday night to inspect the mishap.

Derailed cars were “stacked two or three high,” said McCoy. “There was a huge crater or hole near one of the derailed cars … and one car was leaning against” a tanker that was marked with a placard identifying its contents as propane. “Cars were beaten up, dented in. It looked like a bomb had gone off.”

State DOT spokesman Beau Duffy said CSX notified the state at 8:23 p.m., within a one-hour notification window required under law. He said previous state inspections of the yard have “not found anything out of the ordinary.”

This is the second derailment at the Selkirk yard this year. In February, 13 tanker cars each carrying about 29,000 gallons of highly flammable crude oil derailed, but did not spill or explode. DOT later fined CSX $5,000 for failing to notify the state of the derailment within the one-hour requirement.

Later, inspectors from DOT and the Federal Railroad Administration looked at a mile of track in the Selkirk yard and found 20 “non-critical defects” that were to be repaired, according to a March press release from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

On Monday, there was “a small release” of liquid propane from a tank farm in North Albany, near the intersections of Interstates 90 and 787, according to statement from tank farm owner Global Partners.

Workers found the leak during a “routine site inspection” about 3:45 p.m., according to a statement by Global Partners Vice President Edward J. Faneuil. The company informed the city Fire Department and burned off “excess gas which could not be recovered,” he said. No one was hurt and the cause of the leak was being investigated.

McCoy said flames from the gas burn went on for hours Monday night. City Fire Chief Warren Abriel said his department was notified by Global about 5 p.m. that they were going to burn off excess gas from one of its storage tanks. He said he was not aware that burn was linked to a leak.

Burning gas vented from tanks is a routine procedure at the Global facility that is not unusual, said Abriel. Global expanded its 540,000-gallon propane storage facility in April; it has been receiving propane shipments by rail there since April 2013.

Spokesman from both state DOT and the state Department of Environmental Conservation said their agencies were not required to be notified about the propane spill.