The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Another Oil Train Explodes in West Virginia

Mar 16, 2015

A 109-car oil train derailed and exploded 30 miles from Charleston, West Virginia on February 16th. Two nearby towns had to evacuate, and a water-treatment plant shut down after oil seeped into the Kanawha River.

This is the second derailment of an oil train along this CSX line in less than a year. In April 2014, a train crashed in Lynchburg, Virginia, caught fire and sent thousands of gallons of crude oil spilling into the James River.

These are not isolated incidents. Since 2006 there have been 17 major accidents involving trains carrying crude oil or ethanol in the U.S. and Canada – including the infamous explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people and destroyed the downtown area.

There are several reasons these incidents keep happening.

First of all, the oil being transported today is more volatile. Crude oil fracked from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota – where much of the new oil-by-rail is coming from – is lighter, more like gasoline, and rich in volatile natural gas liquids, including methane, ethane, propane and butane.

These natural gas liquids could be removed from the oil. But North Dakota installations don’t have the equipment or the pipelines to process and transport the gases for resale. So gas-laden oil is shipped to coastal refineries.

During the rail journey, the natural gas liquids separate from the oil and become gaseous, forming an explosive propane-butane blanket on top of the oil.

This brings up the next big problem: outdated rail cars.

The type of railcar typically used to carry North Dakota’s oil – the DOT-111 – was never intended to haul volatile crude oil. Designed in the 1960s, the cars originally carried corn syrup and other less explosive cargo.

But even newer cars aren’t immune from spills. CSX said that the train that erupted and burst into flames in West Virginia was a newer model CPC 1232.

Then there is the issue of carrying this volatile oil on old, uninspected track and rail bridges. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there is a 116-year-old steel bridge with wooden trestles that supports oil trains as they cross the Black Warrior River into the city’s downtown – one small example. Worse still, there are only 76 track inspectors for 780 railroad companies that manage 140,000 miles of track and railroad bridges.

So now we have unsafe oil in unsafe rail cars traveling on unsafe track and bridges that aren’t inspected. Sounds like a recipe for disaster created by the never-ending drive for increasing profits at all costs.