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Crude Catastrophe
Oil-By-Rail Fails in Downtown Virginia City

For the sixth time in North America in less than a year, a train carrying crude oil derailed and ignited on Wednesday. In Lynchburg, Virginia, 15 cars derailed along a portion of track that threaded its way between the James River and downtown Lynchburg, and three of those cars fell down the embankment and in to the river. Ruptured cars leaked crude which then caught on fire, setting the James River, which feeds the Chesapeake Bay, aflame. The New York Times reports:

As smoke billowed into the air, frightened shoppers, office workers and residents evacuated a 20-block area of Lynchburg, a city of 77,000. There were no reported injuries. […]

Leaking oil briefly ignited. An eyewitness told WSET-TV in Lynchburg that the flames leapt as high as the 19th floor of the office building where he watched the accident.

Within an hour of the derailment, the smoke and flames had largely subsided. City officials said 13 to 14 cars derailed and three to four cars had ruptured. They were unsure how much oil drained into the river.

Thankfully, no one was hurt by the spectacular catastrophe, but the incident could have been much worse, given its proximity to nearby office buildings. As it is, an unknown amount of crude leaked in to the waterway, and downstream the city of Richmond is watching and waiting to see if its water supply is affected.

These accidents have become all too common in recent months, and are a direct result of America’s shale revolution. New sources of oil have put a strain on America’s once-adequate pipeline network, and producers have resorted to using railroads in lieu of pipelines. More oil-by-rail means more accidents, and the crude being pumped out of North Dakota’s Bakken formation is of a particularly volatile variety.

Canada recently put in place new standards to make oil-by-rail safer, including a requirement to phase out older, less robust train cars over the next three years. Meanwhile, the United States Department of Transportation has been slow to address these accidents; so far the only progress on that front has been a voluntary agreement by rail operators to slow down in cities and inspect tracks more often. But increased inspections may not be enough: the portion of track where the CSX train derailed Wednesday was reportedly last inspected just some four months ago.

It’s clear that we’re not doing enough to address this oil-by-rail problem. Phasing out the older cars, which are more prone to rupture, is a good start, and the United States should follow Canada’s lead in that regard. But the best long-term solution is to build out our pipeline networks. Pipelines are safer, greener, and ultimately cheaper than transporting crude by rail, and that should factor in to the Obama administration’s Keystone XL decision.

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