Last week’s derailment of a CSX freight train and the explosion, fire and crude oil spill from its tank cars in downtown Lynchburg are finally focusing some needed attention on the quiet build-up of oil shipments and the risks they may pose for the region.
Some of the danger is a result of the hydraulic fracturing drilling that has flooded U.S. markets with new fossil fuel products.
While Virginia, Maryland and the District are in important rail corridors, historically the lines haven’t included all that many crude oil shipments. In the past, refineries in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast typically got their oil from pipelines running from the Gulf Coast area.
Not anymore. So much fracked oil is coming from new areas such as the Bakken Field in North Dakota that existing pipelines and storage tanks can’t handle it all. Delays in new pipelines such as the Keystone XL are factors. Consequently, crude oil rail shipments have increased 400 percent in recent months.
Consider the quaint town of Williamsburg, with its Colonial displays and architecture. Local officials in James City County anticipate that CSX will bring oil trains through twice daily, with some 120 tank cars each. This is the same route that CSX was using when the Lynchburg accident occurred.
The tank cars are bound for a former oil refinery site at Yorktown on the Chesapeake. There, oil is transferred to barges and taken to other East Coast refineries for processing. Eventually, the facility could be used to export crude oil to foreign countries. Destinations could include European nations where energy supplies are threatened by the rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia, a major oil and gas producer.
Yorktown isn’t the only regional energy facility gearing up. Dominion Resources has a $3.8 billion plan to retool a liquefied natural gas facility at Cove Point, Md., so that it can export, rather than import, natural gas. Environmentalists are vigorously protesting that project.
Shipments of crude oil could even affect downtown Washington, although CSX says it is rare for crude oil tanks to transit the city. Residents of Southeast Washington voiced concerns recently that CSX’s plan to upgrade a 110-year-old tunnel could lead to more crude shipments.
If tank cars did derail and explode in the tunnel, the impacts could be disastrous for the city, not to mention the U.S. Capitol building nearby. Last year, 47 people died in a small Quebec town when a runaway crude oil train derailed and caught fire.
Concerned about the safety of crude oil shipments, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia have written to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx calling for tighter regulations.