Train Carrying Oil Derails in West Virginia

CSX train derailment in West Virginia

Image courtesy of Reuters

Train Carrying Oil Derails in West Virginia
| published February 17, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

A CSX train carrying millions of pounds of crude oil derailed in heavy ice and thick snow on Monday, sending cars careening off the tracks, spilling heavy oil into an adjacent river, and setting at least one home on fire after some cars burst into flames.

Explosions from the other cars sent fireballs hundreds of feet into the air and shattered glass more than five miles away. The train, which consisted of more than 100 cars and at least two locomotives, derailed in icy conditions near the small towns of Mt. Carbon and Boomer, West Virginia. At least 25 cars were off the tracks, and 12 were known to have ignited. The derailment and subsequent explosions forced the evacuations of several nearby towns and rural areas, and caused several cars to begin dumping some burning oil into the Kanawha River, which winds its way across the rugged terrain south of Charleston, the state capital.

Officials say that at this time no serious injuries or fatalities have been reported, though there have been reports of minor injuries and smoke inhalation.

The home destroyed by the fires has been obliterated, according to witnesses and reporters on the scene. As of early today it was not clear if the home which was destroyed was occupied or was abandoned.

The derailment took place at about 1:20 p.m. on Monday, and as of midday Tuesday the fires were still burning as fiercely and as large as they had not long after the mishap first occurred, 24 hours earlier. Firefighters, rescue personnel, and rail engineers were having difficulty getting to the scene, because of iced-over roads and heavy snow—more of which fell overnight between Monday and Tuesday. Firefighters and law enforcement from neighboring towns and counties were brought in to battle the rising flames and to scour the area for anyone who might have been injured.

The task of the firefighters was made more difficult by the fact that temperatures overnight dropped again into the low teens, and Tuesday’s high temperature was expected to remain below 16 degrees even as more snow fell around the area.

Though television news crews were able to initially report live on the rail disaster by setting up cameras on the opposite side of the Kanawha River, allowing them to report accurately that six or seven cars were on fire as of late Monday night, media spokespersons with CSX were still maintaining that only one of the 26 derailed cars was on fire.  The train was carrying crude oil from fields in North Dakota to a refinery and distribution facility in Yorktown, Virginia.

Within 30 minutes of the first explosions and fires, scores of photos appeared online showing the inferno and illustrating the immense size of the explosions. County and city officials evacuated people from an area of about five miles around the derailment. State and Federal emergency workers and toxic spill experts were arriving to assess the damage. The intense heat of the fires and explosions made it difficult to assess just how much oil was being dumped into the river, though some experts suggested that the bright spot might be the fact that the oil would burn itself off quickly, thus minimizing the amount of oil which would remain in the flowing river.

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblim declared a state of emergency for both Fayette and Kanawha Counties.

Area utility companies which depend on the river for their customers’ water supplies urged local people to drink only bottled water until advised otherwise. Water intakes were closed along the river, a move which will affect about 2000 customers of West Virginia American Water.

In the meantime, investigators for CSX are meeting with accident investigators for the state and Federal government to make an initial assessment of both the damage and the cause of the accident. Some local officials have indicated that extreme cold and ice may have played a part in conditions along the steel rail lines, which may have been too cold to support the weight of the train. Others have suggested heavy snow may have led to extremely low visibility along the winding tracks.

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Huge Reward for Information on L.A. Fire; Thursday Review; January 22, 2015.