Still burning

Crude oil burns on Tuesday along the Kanawha River near Montgomery where a train derailed on its way to Virginia on Monday, Feb. 16.

The cause of Monday’s train derailment in Powellton Hollow near Mount Carbon is still unknown, and residents at the crash site remain displaced as the Bakken crude oil fires continue to burn.

About 27 cars of the CSX’s 109-car train were derailed and about 19 of them caught fire Monday. Sarah Feinberg, the acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration, confirmed on MetroNews Talkline Thursday morning that the train was traveling 33 miles per hour in a 50 miles per hour speed limit zone when the 27 tanker cars derailed.

By Wednesday afternoon, Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said the fires were about 85 percent contained and clean-up crews plan to allow the fires to burn themselves out.

At this time, the accident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board’s office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials. Investigators are comparing data with tank car design and specifications from similar derailments in Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30, 2013, and Lynchburg, Va., on April 30, 2014.

Messina said there is no timeline on when residents would be able to return to their homes. “The key is ensuring the scene is as safe as possible, and while fires are still ongoing, we haven’t gotten to that point,” he said.

Montgomery Mayor Jim Higgins said residents have been very supportive to those displaced because of the accident, including opening up their homes to friends and family members forced to evacuate their own.

Higgins said WVU Tech students were bused from local dorms to the school’s newly acquired Beckley campus because Montgomery’s water system was shut down Monday, and a boil water advisory remains in effect for all customers in the Montgomery system.

West Virginia American Water said water was restored to all customers by 8 a.m. Wednesday, and most customers only experienced an outage of 12 hours or less. However, some customers didn’t have water for up to 36 hours.

As of Wednesday morning, Higgins said there were 27 families still staying at Valley High School, but those families will soon be moved to more comfortable accommodations.

“All things considered, it turned out the best it could. My thoughts and admiration are for the first-responders who handled the situation and did a wonderful job. They put themselves in danger in some of the worst weather we have had to keep us safe,” he said.

Messina said first-responders are working to contain and clean up oil that migrated from ground spills into Armstrong Creek. He said oil remains on top of ice in Armstrong, which prevents clean-up crews from using booms to absorb the spill.

“The ice is presenting a challenge trying to lay out containment booms, but booms have been placed at the mouth of Armstrong where it flows into the Kanawha River, so any oil that ends up in the water won’t go very far,” he said.

Messina said about 5,000 gallons of oil have been recovered from the site via vacuum trucks.

Moreover, crews are digging containment trenches to prevent further spillage from the site from making its way into the water.

Messina said 41 water samples were already taken by Wednesday morning, and samples will continue to be taken every hour at the water plant and in the Kanawha, just downstream from Armstrong Creek.

As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, all samples have been free from crude oil contaminants.

Monday’s accident, although shocking, could have been much worse.

“This accident is another reminder of the need to improve the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail,” said National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “That is why this issue is included on our Most Wanted List. If we identify any new safety concerns as a result of this derailment, the board will act expeditiously to issue new safety recommendations.”

West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley said the accident could have been catastrophic.

“I understand the same train went through the Charleston area. If the accident had taken place near one of the chemical plants on the Kanawha Valley, it could have been truly catastrophic. Whenever there are trains traveling through populated areas or near where toxic chemicals are being stored, the potential for harm and death is extraordinary,” he said.

McGinley said West Virginia maintains a higher level of secrecy on the movement of crude oil tankers by rail than in other states.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has been involved in a rule-making process relating to establishing federal regulations for oil tankers to protect the public, but the process has been ongoing for an extended period of time, said McGinley. He said concluding that process, or addressing how potential threats are identified, could go a long way to better prevent spills, fires and explosions.

Messina said CSX reports crude oil routes to a state database, and after an accident, the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has access to the information, which is then disseminated to local Emergency Operations Centers as needed. Messina said he understands limiting access to the database is meant to prevent terrorist attacks.

Levi Rose, a representative of Plateau Action Network, is taking part in Fayette County’s efforts to update their Water Source Protection Plan.

“This kind of accident has definitely been something our group has looked at. Our current Water Source Protection Plan identified all points where railroad tracks are near or cross rivers and streams. We have always recognized trains as being a serious threat,” he said.

New River Conservancy President George Santucci, also part of the Water Source Protection Committee, said “The derailment and spill in Montgomery was tragic. The rail lines pose the most unknown threat to source water protection. We don’t know what the cargo is from train to train. While information may be provided after accidents, local emergency response teams don’t know what chemicals or substances they should prepared for.”

Santucci said there was a derailment and spill in the New River at the Gorge last year. It was only soybeans, but it could have been oil, he said.

“The solution is a more reliable method of transportation. I don’t know what that is. I understand this train’s tanker cars were of the new reinforced technology. It was not enough,” he said.

The amount of oil carried by rail has increased. The Association of American Railroads reports an average of 400,000 car loads per day were transported in 2013 compared with 770,000 per day in 2014. Crude oil spills have also increased. The U.S. Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reports 4.35 million liters spilled in 2013, which exceeded the total amount spilled since the agency began keeping count.

Rose also noted Monday’s derailment has opened up a debate about the safety of oil pipelines versus trains for transporting oil.

According to a report from the International Energy Agency, oil train disasters are much more common than pipelines spills, but U.S. pipelines have spilled triple the amount of oil between 2004 and 2012.

Rose said neither transit option is ideal. He said the best water source protection is a divestment in oil and gas and an investment in renewable energy.

— E-mail: splummer@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @Sarah_E_Plummer

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