On Monday, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in West Virginia. Nearby residents told the Charleston Daily Mail explosions “shook and rocked their community like a Biblical judgment.”
The Associated Press reports hundreds were evacuated as fires burned for hours Tuesday. Oil leaked into a nearby river tributary, threatening the area’s water supply.
The West Virginia derailment is the latest in a series of incidents that have frightened communities across the country, including in the Northwest, where protesters frequently rally against oil trains.
State environmental groups were quick to use the incident as an example of oil trains’ dangers.
“Today’s derailment and explosion in West Virginia shows how dangerous oil transportation can be to our waterways, communities, and livelihoods,” said the Washington Environmental Council in a news release.
Why are more oil trains catching fire or exploding?
The production of Bakken shale, a particularly volatile crude oil, in North Dakota is booming.Source: North Dakota Industrial Commission Department of Mineral Resources, Oil and Gas Division
As Vox explains, pipelines can’t move enough of the oil, which leaves trains to ship more of it. With more oil on the rails, the probability of spills or other incidents rises. McClatchy reports: “More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents last year than was spilled in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on such spills.”
More oil being transported by rail in Washington state, too
Last year, the state Legislature commissioned the Washington Department of Ecology to study oil transportation. The department published a draft of the study in December. In October, more than 750 people attended a meeting in Olympia to comment on the study’s preliminary findings.
About 19 trains carrying volatile Bakken oil move through the state each week. Each train can carry about 3 million gallons of oil. If more refineries and terminals are built (as proposed), the department projected, as many as 137 trains a week could pass through Washington.
Companies began moving oil by rail in Washington in 2012. In 2013, 8.4 percent of oil was transported by rail in the state.
Nationally, the report finds, the rate at which oil is spilled is decreasing (shown in the blue bars on the graph below), but more oil is being spilled overall (the red line). The report said not enough data are available in Washington to determine spill rates.
More companies want to transport oil by rail. Some facilities already operating have acquired permits to expand capacity. New facilities are proposed.
In July, a slow-moving train carrying nearly 100 cars of crude oil derailed in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, but did not spill. No one was hurt. Last month, 14 train cars heading through Idaho to Anacortes were leaking oil and had to be removed at three different stops along the railway.
Among the ecology’s departments concerns are accidents in heavily-populated areas, wildfires, traffic impacts and pollution. The state Ecology Department reports “nearly 3 million Washington state residents live in 93 cities and towns on or near crude by rail train routes.” According to the department: “The potential risk to public safety and health is greatest in locations where crude by rail lines run through heavily populated areas, such as the city of Seattle.”
An accident could also start wildfires, the department determined, or pollute drinking-water sources. Some inland areas that rely on wells and aquifers for drinking water could be at risk. The Spokane area, the study points out, relies on a sole-source aquifer, meaning that it supplies more than 50 percent of the drinking water consumed in the region.
“These areas may have no alternative drinking water source(s) that could physically, legally and economically supply all those who depend on the aquifer for drinking water,” said the report.
The Legislature is considering a bill to tax bulk oil purchases and create an oil-spill response fund. The bill would also require facility operators to file spill-prevention plans.