Wednesday, February 18, 2015

More Information on WV Derailment

As clean up after Monday’s crude oil train derailment in West Virginia begins new information is starting to become available; some of it contradicts initial reports. As is typical for chemical related accidents in West Virginia a good source of information continues to be the Charleston Gazette.

No Water Contamination

One of the major concerns on Monday was the possible contamination of drinking water supplies by crude oil spilled into the Kanawha River. Early reports indicated that at least one crude oil tanker was in the river and there were even reports of oil burning on the river. It turns out that no tankers ended up in the water or were really even close to the river.

Given last year’s Freedom Industry spill it is understandable that local residents were concerned about drinking water contamination. Fortunately, safety procedures put into place after that spill were immediately implemented. This included shutting off water intakes on the river down stream of the accident and water testing by the West Virginia National Guard.

Newer Tank Cars

As with all of these crude oil train accidents initial concerns were focused on the relatively fragile DOT 111 railcars that make up a large portion of the crude oil transport fleet. It turns out that the cars involved in this shipment were the slightly newer CPC 1232 railcars that are supposed to hold up to derailments better than the older DOT 111 cars.

While we are still waiting on OMB to approve the PHMSA High-Hazard Flammable Trains final rule, it is interesting to note that last fall’s NPRM included upgrades to the CPC 1232 railcar design that would lessen the chance of crude oil discharges in accidents like this. We will have to wait and see if those changes made it into the final rule (I expect that they did) and what the timetable will be for their implementation.

Looking at photos of the derailment it certainly looks like the results of the accident could have been much worse if these had been DOT 111 cars; particularly if they had been the older models. One good side of the current cutback in crude oil production, many of those DOT 111 cars will be among the first idled.

Cause of Accident

We are still way early in the accident investigation process so it is premature to call out any possible cause of the derailment. I do find it interesting to look at a close up picture of a portion of the track where the accident occurred. The track is severely damaged. What is not clear is if this damage was caused by the accident or if it was the cause of the derailment. CSX is reporting that the track had been inspected just last week.

Political Fallout

As with each of these crude oil train derailments there have been numerous calls for federal action to prevent the derailments and reduce the possibility of the related spills, fires and explosions. I expect that there will be added pressure on OMB to quickly approve the PHMSA rule now under consideration.

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