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Lynchburg Editorial: A sense of déjà vu all over again

Repost from The Lynchburg News & Advance

A Sense of Déjà Vu All Over Again

By The Editorial Board, Thursday, February 19, 2015 6:00 am
WVa Train Derailment
Tanker cars carrying Bakken shale crude oil burn Monday after a derailment in West Virginia. The Associated Press

Monday afternoon, as Central Virginia was bracing for its first blast of winter weather, an event Lynchburgers are all too familiar with was unfolding in the tiny town of Mount Carbon, W.Va.

Situated on the Kanawha River in the southcentral part of the state, there are only 428 people in the town, at least according to the 2010 U.S. Census. But Monday, Mount Carbon became a dateline known across the country.

You see, a CSX rail line passes through Mount Carbon — and Clifton Forge, Covington, Lynchburg, Richmond and Williamsburg — with a final destination of Yorktown. And on this rail line travel four to six trains each week, pulling hundreds of tanker cars headed to the Plains Marketing transfer terminal in Yorktown. In each one of those tanker cars? More than 30,000 gallons of Bakken shale crude oil from North Dakota.

On Monday, one of those CSX train derailed. In a huge explosion, more than 20 tanker cars caught fire. A massive fireball shot into the sky, burning one house to its foundation. Oil leaked into the Kanawha River, threatening the water supply of thousands of West Virginians.

It was eerily reminiscent of April 30, 2014, when another CSX oil train derailed on the banks of the James River in downtown Lynchburg, just yards away from the Depot Grille restaurant and the Amazement Square children’s museum. More than a dozen tankers jumped the track, and three landed in the James. One ruptured and erupted into flames, with up to 31,000 gallons of oil either burning or flowing into the river.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is on the scene today in Mount Carbon, investigated the Lynchburg derailment but has still to determine its official cause. A defect in the track near the site of the derailment had been detected April 29, but NTSB officials don’t know if it played a role in the derailment.

In the wake of the Lynchburg derailment, the White House and Transportation Department fast-tracked new regulations and safety standards for trains carrying Bakken crude and for the tanker cars used. Rail companies were told to alert local governments when hazardous shipments would be coming through their communities, as well as exactly what those shipments were. Old, single-hulled tankers were to be phased out and replaced by new, double-hulled cars designed to be safer and puncture-proof. But in Mount Carbon as in Lynchburg, the cars that ruptured and caught fire were the newer models.

The upshot is simple. Domestically produced crude is fueling an energy revolution in the United States, but federal regulators and the rail industry must make its transport as safe as possible, regardless of the cost. After near-miss disasters in Lynchburg and now Mount Carbon, we may not be so fortunate the next time.