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Oil train derailment spares but shakes up Lynchburg, Va.

Curtis Tate

Today, it’s mostly business as usual in the latest town to experience a brush with disaster from a train carrying crude oil.

In the upper part of downtown, residents go about their routines.

In the lower part, next to the James River, three tank cars of crude oil are still partially submerged in the water, a day after a CSX train derailed. Several more, though upright, are missing their wheels. An orange barrier encircles the derailment site to trap any remaining oil, though the rain-swollen river has long since carried away what didn’t burn.

Blackened trees, stripped of their spring foliage, mark the spot Wednesday where 50,000 gallons of North Dakota crude oil temporarily turned the river into a torch.

No one was injured or killed, and property damage appears to be minimal. But this city of 77,000 residents in south-central Virginia probably never imagined it would join a roster of locales that since last summer have experienced fiery derailments: Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick.

CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., has been moving entire trains of Bakken crude oil from Chicago to a rail-to-barge terminal in Yorktown, Va., since December. One or two such trains pass through Lynchburg daily, though some city officials said they weren’t aware of the operation until Wednesday.

“The city was never formally notified and I don’t believe that we have ever had any discussions of the matter,” Lynchburg Mayor Michael Gillette said in an interview.

Based on the number of cellphone pictures and video clips posted on social media, the fire initially drew a number of curiosity seekers. Emergency officials ultimately evacuated people within three blocks of the site, according to Kimball Payne, the city manager.

“A lot of people used good common sense and left,” he said.

One of them was Tim Dahl, an engineer whose office is downtown.

“I looked out the window and saw a big cloud of smoke,” he said. “I took a picture with my iPhone, got in my truck and went home.”

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the train had two locomotives and 105 cars. It was traveling at 24 mph through Lynchburg when it derailed at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Thirteen cars were involved. The NTSB is investigating the cause, but many residents observed that heavy rains this week could have destabilized the track bed.

CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost said the railroad would provide training to emergency response personnel and hazardous-materials shipping information to state and local officials on request. She also said the railroad would meet the needs of the community, “including financial support.”

Cost said the railroad had conducted training sessions with the Lynchburg Fire Department and “is committed to fully supporting the emergency responders and other agencies.” Some CSX trains would be rerouted in coordination with shippers, she said, but she wouldn’t say what routes the diverted trains would use or when the tracks would reopen in Lynchburg.

The derailed cars tipped toward or fell into the river, perhaps lessening the severity of the accident for the city’s riverfront area, which has been redeveloped in recent years with offices, businesses and residences.

As many as a dozen children were in Amazement Square, a popular children’s museum, when the train derailed very close to the building. All were evacuated safely. The Depot Grille, a restaurant next to the museum, also had to be evacuated. By Thursday, it had been turned into a command center for the cleanup.

“It was wild,” said Shay Borel, who owns a gift shop in a converted garage two blocks from the derailment site. “Flames were towering over those buildings.”

Borel, whose business is marked by a large pink flamingo in front, has lived in the same building for 19 years and has seen a lot of new development around the tracks. Mort Sajadian, the president and CEO of Amazement Square, said that when he’d converted a warehouse into the children’s museum there wasn’t much there besides the railroad.

“People wondered whether I was crazy,” he said, but he added that the museum has helped spark a downtown revitalization.

Lynchburg was historically the nexus of three of Virginia’s major railroads: the Southern, the Norfolk & Western and the Chesapeake & Ohio. The latter two, now part of Norfolk Southern and CSX, respectively, were major coal haulers from West Virginia to Tidewater ports. Once a mainstay for railroads, coal has declined in recent years because of changes in the economy and environmental rules.

Both railroads have become major haulers of crude oil, and they move entire trains of it from Chicago to East Coast refineries. According to the Energy Information Administration, East Coast refineries received half their crude oil from domestic sources in January, a shift away from foreign suppliers made possible by rail transportation.

But it’s also brought risk to communities that may not have been prepared for it. A runaway train of Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July, killing 47 people. Subsequent derailments near Aliceville, Ala., and Casselton, N.D., late last year, while not fatal, spilled more than 1.2 million gallons of crude oil.

Last week, the Canadian government gave railroads a three-year deadline to phase out their most puncture- prone tank cars from carrying crude oil, and the industry said it would do its best to comply. U.S. regulators sent new tank car standards to the Obama administration for review, though it will be months before that process is complete.

Kathy Spitzer, who lives in Concord, a community halfway between Lynchburg and Appomattox, where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865, ending the Civil War, summed up the feeling of most residents:

“It could have been a lot worse than it was.”


By Curtis Tate
McClatchy Washington Bureau