Monday a train carrying crude petroleum derailed in West Virginia; 14 cars exploded. At least one of the cars went into the Kanawha River, and another crashed into a home before it exploded. Authorities have been unable to investigate the house due to intense heat. It is unknown whether or not the home was occupied. Two towns near the disaster have been evacuated, as the flames from explosions rose to the mountain tops. Two local water treatment plants have been shut down.
The oil train was carrying crude from North Dakota. This particular crude is from the Bakken oil patch, and the United States Department of Transportation had warned the public last year about the dangers of this particular crude. It was bound for Yorktown, Virginia.
The train is operated by CSX. Last April another CSX train crashed 200 miles away in Lynchburg, Virginia, and erupted into flames.
There has been a debate for some time whether transporting crude by rail, barge, tanker, or pipeline is safer. The truth is complicated. Each presents its own path to disaster. One of the arguments in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline is that if it is not constructed, it will be transported by rail. Some of the tar sands crude is already traveling by train.
The extreme heat and pressure needed to pump the unusually heavy and poisonous crude through the Keystone pipeline increase the danger of a major break resulting in environmental damage of epic proportions.
Crude comes in different forms and must be processed by refineries with the ability to convert the heavy liquid into usable commodities. A new refinery which would use the latest technology to refine multiple types of crude has not been built. In fact, the petroleum industry has not constructed a new refinery since 1976, although they continue to post record profits and receive tax subsidies.
As of mid-2014, 70 percent of crude oil and other petroleum products were shipped through pipelines; 23 percent were transported by tankers and barges; four percent by trucks; and only three percent by rail. Those numbers are changing.
Before 2005 spills from train cars were rare. Since that year, the percentage of oil transported by rail has increased by 443 percent; and because of that so are the number of disasters resulting from petroleum transported by train. In the last three years, seven of the ten worst spills in the United States occurred from train car derailment. This does not include a tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Just last July a derailment destroyed the town and resulted in the deaths of 47 persons.
In 2013 more crude was spilled than the total sum since 1971 at 1.2 million gallons. In November of that year, a derailment in Alabama released 750,000 gallons of crude; in December 500,000 gallons were discharged in North Dakota.
The extent of damage from yesterday’s disaster in West Virginia will not be known for some time. Authorities have no choice but to let the fires burn themselves out. The environmental impact on the area’s drinking water will be enormous.
The argument about whether the transportation of petroleum products by pipeline, rail, or over water are a misdirection. Our government should be focusing on alternative fuels which would begin to reverse climate change as well as protect people and property. All three methods create their own personal and environmental dangers, and the proof has been in the reporting of disasters resulting from mining and transporting petroleum products.
As oil and gas production increases, so will the disasters resulting from our dependence on fossil fuels.
Commentary by James Turnage
Al Jazeera: Oil train derails in West Virginia
Mother Jones: Is Shipping Oil by Rail As Dangerous As the Keystone Pipeline?
Forbes: Settlement Is Far From End Of Costs For BP And Oil Industry From Gulf Oil Spill
Photo Courtesy of Thomas Hawk’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License