Even for West Virginia, a state that has suffered more than its fair share of industrial disasters, the images from a train crash Monday are apocalyptic: many cars derailed, fires so fierce firefighters are simply waiting for them to burn out, 300-foot fireballs. "It was like an atomic bomb went off," one resident told the Associated Press.
Miraculously, there don't seem to be any serious injuries in the wreck, which took place south of Charleston. The more-than-1oo-car CSX train was hauling crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to Yorktown, Virginia. (In a bitter irony, it went off the rails in Mount Carbon.) Residents have been evacuated from the area, the West Virginia National Guard is testing a tributary Kanawha River to see if crude has seeped into it, and two water-treatment plants shut down Monday, depriving residents of running water, to avoid contamination. The cause of the crash is still unclear, officials said. While it occurred in the midst of a snowstorm, there was no definitive connection yet, and the train was on a flat stretch when the accident happened.
The wreck is the latest in a steady stream of scary crashes involving crude oil across North America. By far the worst was in Lac-Megántic, Quebec, in 2013, when 47 people were killed. In December 2013, there was a huge derailment in Casselton, North Dakota. (A second oil train derailed nearby months later, but it was empty.) Last April, 15 cars derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia.
One reason for the increase in accidents is the enormous growth in train hauling of oil, in turn driven by expanded oil production in the western United States. Trains also haul crude oil from western Canada, including from the tar sands that would be served by the Keystone XL pipeline if it is built.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reacted to the crashes by announcing new safety standards one year ago: Speed limits are lower in cities, and trains have to add more braking technology. Those steps were voluntarily taken by rail companies, and critics attacked them as insufficient, accusing railroads of excessive secrecy. Three months later, in May 2014, the department added more rules for disclosure and called on railroads to replace older, less safe tanker cars called DOT-111s with newer ones, CPC-1232s.
And that's perhaps the scariest part of the West Virginia crash: The CSX train was hauling only newer, reputedly safer cars when it derailed and caught fire. A car that caught fire in the Lynchburg crash was also a CPC-1232. The National Transportation Safety Board told the Senate last April it didn't think CPC-1232s were good enough.
Almost a year after the federal government moved to tighten the standards, crashes don't seem to be stopping. Nor are the cars that have been widely viewed as a panacea as effective as regulators or the industry apparently hoped. And despite dropping oil prices, it's unlikely that production will stop anytime soon in the Bakken or Alberta; as long as the nation and the world runs on fossil fuels, crude oil will have to move across the continent and through towns and cities.
The Department of Transportation is still considering stricter rules, and safety advocates say there's more than can be done. North Dakota recently mandated that oil companies filter some flammable liquids out of crude. For the time being, though, fiery crashes may remain frighteningly routine.