Oil-train wreck in Virginia brings demands for more regulation

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LYNCHBURG, Va. -- The latest fiery oil-train wreck brought renewed demands Thursday that the Obama administration quickly tighten regulations governing the burgeoning rail transport of highly combustible crude.

With production booming in the Bakken oil field along the U.S. northern tier and in Canada, some experts say stronger rules to head off a catastrophe are long overdue. However, drafting and approving new regulations can take months or even years, an elaborate process that involves time to study potential changes and a public comment period before anything is adopted.

In the latest crash, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed Wednesday in downtown Lynchburg, sending three tanker cars into the James River and shooting flames and smoke into the air. No one was hurt, but the wreck prompted an evacuation and worried local residents and officials.

There have been eight other significant accidents in the United States and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude, and some caused considerable damage and deaths, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Bakken crude ignites more easily than other types.

The NTSB and members of Congress have been urging the Transportation Department to work swiftly on new standards to make tanker cars more rugged.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has told lawmakers that regulators are working as quickly as they can to get tougher tanker car regulations written and approved. But he said some oil firms have failed to provide data he sought, and complained that the agency within his department that regulates flammable liquids is understaffed.

The cause of Wednesday's accident is under investigation by the NTSB. CSX said it is cooperating fully. NTSB investigator Jim Southworth said the train was going 24 mph in a 25-mph zone at the time.

Tom Shahady, a Lynchburg College environmental science professor, said erosion around the tracks because of increased development may have contributed to the derailment.

On Thursday, crews used cranes and other heavy equipment to clear the wreck, and workers put a boom around the cars in the water. Nearly all of the train's cars were carrying crude, and each had a capacity of 30,000 gallons, officials said.

On Thursday, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 gallons of oil had escaped. It wasn't clear how much burned off and how much entered the river. The figure was much lower than an estimate city officials gave the previous day.

City spokeswoman JoAnn Martin said there was no effect on the water supply for Lynchburg's 77,000 residents because the city draws from the river only during droughts.

The spill probably won't have a significant effect on the James River, given its volume and the other pollutants already flowing into it, Mr. Shahady said.

Meanwhile early Thursday morning, a CSX freight train carrying about 8,000 tons of coal partially derailed in Bowie, Md., CSX officials and the Prince George's County Fire Department said. That followed a massive retaining wall's collapse onto Baltimore freight tracks the day before.

That has raised questions about the impact of the Baltimore and Bowie incidents on regional freight movements, including from the port of Baltimore.


The Baltimore Sun contributed.


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