Crude Oil Derailments Continue – Are You Prepared?

trainderailmentAuthor: David Willauer, Transportation Manager, IEM

Another train transporting crude oil derailed yesterday, this time in downtown Lynchburg, VA, resulting in a large fire and oil spill on the James River. CSX reported 15 tank cars derailed on a train traveling from Chicago to Virginia, four of which breached and caught fire. While there were no injuries reported, a half-mile evacuation was ordered by local officials.

Crude oil train derailments are occurring with alarming regularity in North America, and this trend is likely to continue. Advances in methods of extracting oil from shale formations in North Dakota and Canada have led to a dramatic surge in North American oil production. With gaps in the pipeline network connecting production facilities to U.S. oil refineries, producers are relying on rail carriers to transport significant amounts of crude oil to meet this new demand. U.S. freight railroads have carried more than 400,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013 compared to 9,500 carloads in 2008. With this level of crude oil transport continuing for the foreseeable future, it is critical that local officials prepare to respond to these types of incidents.

hazardsignHigher Flammability of Bakken Shale Oil
Bakken Shale Oil is more volatile than other crude oil, increasing the probability of incidents we have seen in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota, New York, Pennsylvania, and now Virginia.

Increased Volumes of Crude Oil Transport Leads to More Incidents
In 2013 alone, there were 1.15 million gallons of crude oil spilled due to rail incidents compared to 800,000 gallons spilled during the previous four decades combined.

More Crude Oil and Natural Gas Increases Chemical Production
More domestic oil and natural gas translates to plans for more chemical plants in the U.S. and Canada, which will lead to increases in petroleum and chemical transportation by motor carrier, rail, pipeline, and barge.

Emergency Response Plans need to be updated to reflect this new risk.  This should be a priority for local officials since railroads are not required to have emergency response plans (although many railroads do so voluntarily). Even facility response plans in many U.S. ports were written with the assumption that most crude oil transported to the port was by ship or barge. Now the profile is changing, with many ports now receiving crude by rail in large volumes.

It will take time for regulations to address concerns with crude oil transportation. However, local officials should not wait, but begin their own work to address emergency response planning. Given this alarming trend, a crude oil rail incident could occur in your backyard sooner rather than later.

David Willauer is a Transportation Manager with IEM in Arlington, VA and serves as the Vice-Chair of the TRB Transportation of Hazardous Materials Committee.

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