Lynchburg city leaders: ‘We dodged a bullet’

Repost from The Lynchburg News & Advance

James River Association reflects on train derailment

May 14, 2014 11:08 pm  |  Alex Rohr
River association reflects on train derailment
Bobby Harris listens to Lynchburg City Manager L. Kimball Payne III speak during a community meeting on rail safety concerns hosted by the James River Association at the Craddock Terry Hotel and Event Center on Wednesday.  Photo by Autumn Parry

The phrase repeated throughout a James River Association forum reflecting on the CSX train derailment of two weeks ago was “we dodged a bullet.”

No one was killed in the wreck that caused 17 tankers of a 105-car train to derail on April 30. No one died in the subsequent fire after one tanker breached, spilling 20,000-plus gallons of oil into the James River. The damage to environment likely is minimal.

But the JRA held a forum Wednesday with City Manager Kimball Payne, Upper James Riverkeeper Pat Calvert and City Councilman Turner Perrow to reflect on the incident, the aftermath and what to do going forward to prevent a worse disaster.

Payne and Perrow had just left a meeting at City Hall when they were told separately about the wreck. Payne, who was named JRA’s 2014 River Hero at the beginning of the meeting, recounted watching black smoke from a window at City Hall.

He immediately thought downtown was on fire, the Depot Grille had been destroyed, and people had died.

“It was a horrifying thought. …So I, like an idiot, headed for the river,” Payne said.

By the time he arrived, police and firemen were on the scene, knew the tankers were hauling Bakken crude and were acting accordingly.

“Then I realized the Depot Grille was still standing and I felt a lot better. But the river was on fire. … It could have been a lot worse.”

As the April 30 incident unfolded, Payne, Calvert and Perrow found themselves in a national discussion on rail safety, fielding questions from reporters across the country.

“I don’t know how they got my cellphone. I was getting texts from CBS news,” Payne said.

Safety concerns related to the hauling of Bakken oil — more volatile than standard crude — have been growing nationwide following the fatal wreck in Quebec, Canada in July as well as derailments resulting in environmental damage. The National Transportation Safety Board, the agency investigating the derailment, held a forum the week before the Lynchburg wreck on rail safety, referencing a national increase in rail traffic.

“The national discussion is happening. We’re on the sidelines right now,” Perrow said after the meeting.

“What this did is it pulled Virginia into the conversation. We’ll see if we have a seat at the table or not.”

One week after the wreck, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to provide state agencies information about Bakken crude hauled by rail. The order did not include a requirement for the state to share that information with localities.

“We don’t think it’s strong enough. They need to do more,” Calvert said speaking for the JRA. He specified the JRA wants stronger regulations on rail cars, in particular the older models that have proved vulnerable even with upgrades.

While Payne said he wants to know what hazardous materials are hauled through Lynchburg in general and how to deal with them, he doesn’t know what the city would do with minute-by-minute details.

Ed Melton, general manager of RockTenn, a packaging manufacturer on Concord Turnpike near the tracks, attended the forum and said he is concerned about evacuating his employees.

But the speakers emphasized hazardous material safety is not only about crude or rail. Payne said the city needs to know the general dangers on roadways. Calvert said hazards on the James include those causing the February Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina and the January Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia.

“The James River watershed holds about 80 percent of the toxic substances in the state of Virginia. To me, that’s very alarming,” Calvert said.

He and JRA Chief Executive Officer Bill Street said addressing those hazards should be part of the discussion going forward.

“We don’t have all the answers. That’s why we wanted to bring people together to talk about it,” Street said.

All three speakers said because the issue involved interstate commerce — the oil was drilled in North Dakota, and the train came from Chicago on the way to Yorktown — a decision would need to come at the federal level.

Perrow said the discussion needs to include whether hazardous materials should be going through populated areas where they could cause loss to human life or less populated ones where it may take longer to respond resulting in harsher damage. He said personal safety and environmental health should be balanced with economic benefit.

“I know I haven’t given you any answers, but I don’t think they’re out there right now,” Perrow said.

Calvert said he drank out of a plastic water bottle and arrived at the meeting in an automobile — both acts dependent on crude oil.

“We’re all dependent on this. We are all sort of complicit in this. Now what are we going to do about it?” Calvert said.

Those who are interested in participating in the policy decisions, and at least making sure what can be done is done, may contact their government representatives.

Perrow, who has been educating himself on rail, and in particular rail car safety, said people should do the same, and also talk to Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner because they are involved in the conversation at the national level. The senators issued a joint statement May 5 asking for tighter regulations, and another after the May 7 emergency order urging further action.

When asked by an attendee what she and others could do to help shape policy, Perrow said they should get or stay involved with JRA.

Street said the JRA keeps its members informed about ongoing issues and lets them know when to contact representatives when decisions are being made so their voice can join others most effectively.

“We are the voice of the river,” Street said. “The more people we have in this effort, the stronger the voice will be.”