Train Wreck Raises Specter of Richmond Evacuations

Lots of crude oil runs through downtown.

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If a railroad train hauling crude oil derailed, exploded and caught fire in Richmond just as one did Monday 30 miles southeast of Charleston, West Virginia, much of downtown Richmond would need to be evacuated.

That seems to be estimate after reviewing data from Forest Ethics, a San Francisco environmental group, along with information released last year from the Richmond Fire Department.

At about 1:20 p.m. yesterday, a CSX train hauling more than 100 oil tanker cars derailed during a snowstorm east of Charleston, igniting 14 tank cars and sending one into the Kanawha River.

No one was injured, but nearby residents were evacuated while flames shot 300 feet into the air. A drinking-water facility also was temporarily shut down.

The accident is similar to one that happened in downtown Lynchburg on April 30, when another CSX crude oil train derailed and several tanks cars exploded and spilled into the James River.

What do both accidents have in common?

The trains involved were routed to go right through the downtown Richmond area. According to a Forest Ethics Website, derailments and fires of a similar nature would force the evacuations for one half of a mile on either side of downtown along the James River, where CSX has an elevated track.

Last year, the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighted the danger and quoted Richmond fire captain Darl Jewell Jr., the department’s hazardous materials coordinator, as saying that, “CSX won’t tell him the worst-case scenario of an oil-train derailment in Richmond, but he has his own blueprint — a map that shows concentric evacuation zones of a quarter- and half-mile around the triple rail crossing in Shockoe Bottom.”

Crude oil rail shipments, and the dangers they pose, have grown rapidly as hydraulic fracturing drilling methods makes more oil available from previously difficult oil fields, such as the Bakken Shale field in North Dakota.

The flood of shale oil — and also of natural gas — from fracking has dramatically improved America’s petroleum supply and dropped prices, but it has raised new dangers. The worst crude oil rail accident occurred July 6, 2013, when cars from a Canadian train hauling Bakken crude got loose and ran through the middle of Lac-Megantic, a small down in Quebec. They exploded, killing 47 residents and destroying half of the downtown area.

In Virginia, the destination for the crude oil is one that didn’t exist a few years ago — a former deepwater, refinery site on the York River in Yorktown. The refinery had operated for years but shut down in 2010. It was bought by Houston-based Plains All American which refitted the facility to transship crude oil from rail cars to barges where it is taken by water to refineries on the East Coast.

The facility receives several large trains with crude oil every week.

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