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A CSX Corp train was carrying crude oil when it derailed and burst into flames in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia. The derailed cars wound up  spilling oil into the James River and forced 300-350 Lynchburg residents to evacuate. The CSX train was traveling from Chicago to Virginia.

Reports indicate that three or four tank cars were spilling oil into the James River (the same river that runs  to the Chesapeake Bay).

The exact cause of the derailment remains unclear, or what triggered the fire.

Several “oil-trains” have derailed over the past year. For example, a train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, derailed and exploded killing 47 people in July 2013. Another CSX train carrying crude oil derailed in Philadelphia in January 2014, nearly toppling over a bridge, according to Thomson Reuters. Another example is a derailment that occurred in North Dakota where plumes of toxic smoke inundated the town of Casselton.

I published an article a few months back touching on the safety implications of transporting crude oil by rail. Check it out here. 

Safety Concerns Over the Transport of Oil by Rail  

More trains are hauling crude and flammable liquids across North America than ever before. This has caused U.S. regulators to consider new rules for require more robust tank cars to replace older trains. After the Quebec derailment, Canadian authorities already issued more stringent regulations.

Oil trains that are often a mile long are traveling across the country.  Safety concerns have been raised in local communities. In Virginia, environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have opposed expansion of crude-by-rail shipments through the region to the Yorktown terminal, which can handle 140,000 barrels per day, according to the aforementioned Reuters article. In an ironic twist, community groups have specifically pointed to CSX’s route through Lynchburg and the proximity to the James River as an area of serious concern due to the population of the city and the James River’s connection to the Chesapeake Bay.

Memories of Graniteville

The Lynchburg derailment has similar characteristics to the awful Norfolk Southern chemical spill that occurred in Graniteville, South Carolina. Toxic chlorine gas spread to Graniteville resulting in potentially horrific health effects.

Possible Long-Term Consequences

The news continues to stream in about the Lynchburg CSX derailment, but it’s reasonable to assert that there is likely to be long-term consequences from this crude oil train derailment. Possibly thousands of gallons of crude oil are now spilling into the James River. The effects of that spilled oil could be felt for years. The same goes for the smoke that is filling the skies throughout Lynchburg. We know that at least 300-350 Lynchburg residents have been directly effected, but that number could climb into the thousands.

This is an awful event that may be a turning point in the debate over whether crude oil can and should be transported long distances by rail.

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