The fiery derailment of a train carrying crude oil in West Virginia is one of three in the past year involving tank cars that already meet a higher safety standard than what federal law requires — leading some to suggest even tougher requirements that industry representatives say would be prohibitively costly.
Hundreds of families were evacuated and nearby water treatment plants were temporarily shut down after cars derailed from a train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude Monday, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a Kanawha River tributary and burning down a house nearby. It was snowing at the time, but it is not yet clear if weather was a factor.
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The train's tanks were a newer model — the 1232 — designed during safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago. The same model spilled oil and caught fire in Timmins, Ontario on Saturday, and last year in Lynchburg, Virginia.
A series of ruptures and fires have prompted the administration of President Barack Obama to consider requiring upgrades such as thicker tanks, shields to prevent tankers from crumpling, rollover protections and electronic brakes that could make cars stop simultaneously, rather than slam into each other.
If approved, increased safety requirements now under White House review would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars being used to carry highly flammable liquids.
"This accident is another reminder of the need to improve the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail," said Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
But industry officials say upgrading further from the 1232 cars would be too costly. The Railway Supply Institute says an estimated $7 billion has already been spent to put 57,000 of these cars into service.
"We have billions invested in tank cars," Bob Greco, a senior official with the American Petroleum Institute, told The Associated Press in July. "Every day new, modern 1232 tank cars are coming into service."
Oil shipments by rail jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to more than 435,000 in 2013, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where pipeline limitations force 70 percent of the crude to move by rail, according to American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.
The downside: Trains hauling Bakken-region oil have been involved in major accidents in Virginia, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Alabama and Canada, where 47 people were killed by an explosive derailment in 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
Reports of leaks and other oil releases from tank cars are up as well, from 12 in 2008 to 186 last year, according to Department of Transportation records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Just Saturday — two days before the West Virginia wreck — 29 cars of a 100-car Canadian National Railway train carrying diluted bitumen crude derailed in a remote area 50 miles south of Timmins, Ontario, spilling oil and catching fire. That train was headed from Alberta to Eastern Canada.
The train Monday was bound for an oil shipping depot in Yorktown, Virginia, along the same route where three tanker cars plunged into the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia, prompting an evacuation last year.
The train derailed near unincorporated Mount Carbon just after passing through Montgomery, a town of 1,946, on a stretch where the rails wind past businesses and homes crowded between the water and the steep, tree-covered hills. All but two of the train's 109 cars were tank cars, and 26 of them left the tracks.
Fire crews had little choice but to let the tanks burn themselves out. Each carried up to 30,000 gallons of crude. Oil cars were still burning Tuesday evening.
One person — the owner of the destroyed home — was treated for smoke inhalation, but no other injuries were reported, according to the train company, CSX. The two-person crew, an engineer and conductor, managed to decouple the train's engines from the wreck behind it and walk away unharmed.
The NTSB said its investigators will compare this wreck to others including Lynchburg and one near Casselton, N.D., when a Bakken crude train created a huge fireball that forced the evacuation of the farming town.
No cause has been determined, said CSX regional vice president Randy Cheetham. He said the tracks had been inspected just three days before the wreck.
"They'll look at train handling, look at the track, look at the cars. But until they get in there and do their investigation, it's unwise to do any type of speculation," he said.
By Tuesday evening, power crews were restoring electricity, water treatment plants were going back online, and most of the local residents were back home. Initial tests showed no crude near water plant intake points, state Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said.
State officials do have say some say over rail safety.
Railroads are required by federal order to tell state emergency officials where trains carrying Bakken crude are traveling. CSX and other railroads called this information proprietary, but more than 20 states rejected the industry's argument, informing the public as well as first-responders about the crude moving through their communities.
West Virginia is among those keeping it secret. State officials responded to an AP Freedom of Information request by releasing documents redacted to remove nearly every detail.
There are no plans to reconsider after this latest derailment, said Melissa Cross, a program manager for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Contributors include Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C.; Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana; and Pam Ramsey in Charleston, West Virginia. Mattise reported from Charleston.