The risk rolling on Hampton Roads rails

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) – The mother of 21-month-old Lily Murphy is concerned about her daughter’s safety whenever she plays in their back yard. That’s because CSX trains pass about fifty feet from their back fence, as often as five times a week.

“Nothing like that ever even crossed my mind that it could be carrying hazardous, dangerous material so it’s good that you brought that to light,” said mother Christina Murphy.

The trains haul Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to Yorktown. It was a Bakken train derailment that caused a fatal inferno last year in Lac Megantic, Quebec, when nearly fifty people were killed in the explosion and fire. Another Bakken train derailed in Lynchburg last April and caused a major fire along the James River — that train was headed for Yorktown.

Photos: Train catches fire, derails in Lynchburg

Pat Calvert is a river keeper for the James River Association. His Lynchburg office is within a block of where the Lynchburg derailment occurred.

“Today, that same risk that existed on April 30, over six months later, is right here along the James River,” Calvert said. “That’s our concern: that we need to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Experts say Bakken is more flammable than other types of crude oil.

“A lot of people think about the Beverly Hillbillies and the bubbling crude oil, it’s not that kind of crude oil,” said Gregory Britt, director of the Technological Hazards Division of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. “It’s probably a lot closer to gasoline, as far as the flammability.”

CSX filed paperwork with the Commonwealth detailing the shipments. The railroad confirmed to 10 On Your Side it runs two to five Bakken oil trains a week across Virginia. Each train is about a hundred cars in length, with a total payload of about three million gallons of oil.

Document: Paperwork filed by CSX

The route includes Richmond and eventually passes through Williamsburg, Newport News and York County.

“It’s highly volatile, with a low flash point, and it’s going right through highly populated areas,” Calvert said. “People don’t realize this is happening every day.”

What makes the shipments even more dangerous is the design of many of the older tank cars that haul it. Federal regulators, railroads and rail car makers agree the older cars, known as legacy DOT 111s, need safety upgrades. This specific aspect of rail transportation is regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). It’s up to PHMSA to create the rules for the modifications. PHMSA is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Document: PHMSA’s proposed rule for flammable trains

“My industry likes the certainty of rule-making and has urged the Department of Transportation to move quickly on issuing a final rule,” said Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, the trade association that represents firms that make and service railroad tank cars.

CSX supports the safety modifications as well.

“The railroad industry supports to improve the tank car standards, to make sure that we’re moving the safest cars that we possibly can,” said CSX vice president Bryan Rhode, whose region includes Virginia.

PHMSA told WAVY News in an email that it is currently evaluating nearly 4,000 comments regarding safety upgrades for the older tank cars. A spokesman said the agency has a target date of March 31, 2015 to determine what upgrades are needed and make them mandatory.

Related link: Public comments regarding safety upgrades

Among several options, PHMSA is considering an extra jacket surrounding the cars to create a double wall, and protective guards on the top, ends and bottom. The measures would help prevent against ruptures and oil spillage.

The Quebec derailment involved about 1.3 million gallons of Bakken crude oil; the Lynchburg train leaked about 29,000 gallons.

“Lynchburg contributed to the larger discussion, nationally, about how we enhance safety for these types of trains,” Rhode said of CSX.

According to data from the US Department of Transportation, the amount of Bakken crude transported by rail has soared in recent years. In 2008, railroads hauled about 9,500 carloads. By 2013, the amount was 415,000 carloads, a 43-fold increase.

VDEM holds ongoing training for first responders to handle a potential incident involving Bakken crude.

“If there’s an event dealing with a spill, they should be able to dam it, dike it, they should be able to hold it in place for further assistance,” said Britt, who runs the training at key locations, including the York County safety services complex on Back Creek Road. “Then specialists can come in and environmental companies can clean it up.”

Christina Murphy hopes that training never has to be utilized, as she enjoys time in her yard with Lily in Newport News.

“I guess we should think about what we would do here, if something like that would happen, that’s pretty scary,” she said.

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