RICHMOND, Va. – Early reviews found no human error or mechanical failure that could have caused a fiery derailment of an oil train in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday.
Investigator Jim Southworth said a total of 17 train cars derailed Wednesday afternoon, with three tumbling into the James River. Southworth said one of those cars breached and caught on fire. The CSX train was carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota when it derailed.
CSX said in a statement Friday that all but two of the derailed cars have been position for removal from the site.
Southworth said at a news conference that investigators have interviewed the train’s conductor and engineer, and reviewed footage from a camera mounted on the front of the locomotive and the train’s data recorder that is similar to a black box found on airplanes.
“I don’t see anything in the way the crew handled the train that might contribute to this accident,” Southworth said. He said they would continue to try to find the cause.
He also said no defects have been found in the train cars or the track signals. Southworth said there’s still large amount of work to do to examine the rail itself due to the ongoing cleanup. Recovery efforts are moving slowly because of complexity involved in hauling a more than 200,000-pound tanker car out of the river by crane, he said.
State environmental officials on Thursday spotted oil sheens 12 miles downstream from the derailment site, said Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Bill Hayden. The state has estimated that about 20,000 to 25,000 gallons of oil escaped. Hayden said the department had not seen any oil around Richmond, which is downriver from Lynchburg and draws its drinking water from the James River.
The derailment was the latest in a string of oil-train wrecks, which has brought renewed demands that the Obama administration quickly tighten regulations governing the burgeoning practice of transporting highly combustible crude by rail. Some experts say stronger rules to head off a catastrophe are long overdue.
There have been eight other significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude, and some of them caused considerable damage and deaths, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Bakken crude ignites more easily than other types.
No one was hurt or killed when a train derailed in Lynchburg, but emergency officials say it underscores that many departments don’t have the resources to deal with such an accident along a busy route for hauling oil from the booming Bakken oil fields in the northern U.S. tier and Canada.
“It definitely raises concerns,” said Williamsburg Fire Chief William Dent. “We have some minimal resources here.”
The worst-case scenario for his department, Dent said, would be an oil-train derailment on a stretch of CSX track passing between the College of William & Mary and the popular Williamsburg historic area. Some buildings on both sides would have to be evacuated, and the department would have to call on neighbouring localities for help responding to the disaster.
Lynchburg officials evacuated some buildings and let the fire burn out, but Richmond Fire Chief Robert Creecy said a more aggressive response would be required if an oil train plunged from the elevated CSX track dissecting Virginia’s capital. The track spans Interstate 95 and, like the stretch in Lynchburg, grazes the edge of James River.
Richard Edinger, assistant fire chief in the Richmond suburb of Chesterfield County, said no fire department except those at some refineries has sufficient equipment and materials to deal with exploding oil-filled tank cars.
Edinger, who also serves as vice chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Hazardous Materials Committee, said emergency responders have long been aware of the threat posed by the transport of crude oil.
“What’s new to this picture is the scale, the amount of product coming through,” he said. “That’s the game changer.”
Fire chiefs said firefighters receive training on responding to oil tanker fires — Williamsburg just conducted an exercise based on a simulated derailment of Bakken crude March 27, Dent said — but it hasn’t received any special emphasis.
“These are low-frequency, high-consequence incidents,” Edinger said. “When looking at all you need to purchase and train on, this is one of them but it doesn’t always make the highest priority.”
Nearly all of the train’s cars in Lynchburg were carrying crude, and each had a capacity of 30,000 gallons, officials said.
Lynchburg 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.
Associated Press writer Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.