The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trains are carrying — and spilling — a record amount of oil

When 14 tanker cars derailed and exploded Monday near tiny Mount Carbon, W.V., neighbors likened the fireball to a scene from the apocalypse. It was “like something Biblical, or wrath-of-God type stuff,” one resident said.

In fact, the oil spill and fire on the banks of the Kanawha River was the latest occurrence of a type of accident that U.S. officials say is becoming distressingly common. Federal agencies are documenting a dramatic rise in the number of rail mishaps involving oil tankers in the last three years, as North American producers scramble to find ways to transport surging oil output to markets.

The fiery explosion of oil-laden CSX tanker cars along a snowy stretch of south-central West Virginia came just two days after a similar incident in eastern Ontario, and follows a year that shattered all previous records for rail accidents involving shipments of petroleum products.

More than 141 “unintentional releases” were reported from railroad tankers in 2014, an all-time high and a nearly six-fold increase over the average of 25 spills per year during the period from 1975 to 2012, according to records of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The year 2013 had fewer accidents but a much larger volume of spilled crude: 1.4 million gallons, an amount that exceeded the total for all spills since record-keeping began in 1975.

The increase adds yet another dimension to the controversy overthe construction of oil pipelines such as the Keystone XL. Oil industry advocates contend that pipelines are safer than rail for moving flammable petroleum, while opponents say pipelines tend to experience much larger spills. The latest spill also highlights well-documented shortcomings in the local preparedness for accidents involving hazardous rail cargo, safety experts say.

“Back-to-back fiery derailments involving crude oil trains should be an unmistakable wake-up call to our political leaders,” said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group.

The toll from the latest disaster is far from clear. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in two West Virginia counties as firefighters and hazmat crews worked for a second day to control the fire and contain an oil spill that contaminated a small creek and threatened to spread to the Kanawha River, a source of drinking water for cities and towns downstream. Nearly 2,500 people were evacuated when portions of the 109-car train derailed and then caught fire in a rural area southeast of Charleston.

Only one injury was reported, but a nearby house was destroyed as one tanker after another exploded, creating columns of smoke and flame that could be seen for miles. A CSX spokesman had no immediate explanation for the accident but confirmed that leaking oil had already reached one of Kanawha’s tributaries.

“Fires around some of the cars will be allowed to burn out,” the company said in a statement.

Transportation experts have long complained about inadequate oversight and gaps in local preparedness for such accidents. Earlier this month, the Obama administration began a review of proposed new rules for oil-hauling trains, including provisions that would mandate updated tanker designs for freight trains hauling flammable cargo. But on Tuesday, CSX officials disclosed that the tankers that caught fire in West Virginia bore the latest design features, raising doubts over whether the new rules would have helped.

Part of the problem, energy experts say, is that transportation has not yet caught up with the sheer volume of oil being pumped by U.S. and Canadian companies in the past three years. In 2012, trains carried 40 times more oil than they did in 2008, and the volume doubled again in the following year, to about 400,000 tanker-car loads, according to figures posted by the Association of American Railroads. In production areas where pipelines are unavailable or at capacity, rail has become the transit choice by default, Charles Esser, an analyst with the International Energy Association, wrote in a recent blog.

“North American rail shipments of oil are by no means unprecedented, but until the recent surge in production, they were largely limited to stopgap, temporary use, with pipeline construction favored,” Esser wrote. While overall only about 10 percent of U.S. crude moves by tanker car, nearly 70 percent of the production from North Dakota’s surging Bakken fields reaches refineries by rail, he said.

“Not surprisingly, accidents have increased, as well,” Esser said. The petroleum that spilled in West Virginia on Monday originated in North Dakota and was headed for an oil terminal in Yorktown, Va.

As accidents mount, so do chances for major disasters that could pollute communities and the environment, Matteson said. She cited the July 2013 derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people and forced the evacuation of 2,000 people.

“People’s lives are at stake, clean drinking water is at stake, and the well-being of towns and wildlife along thousands of miles of rail line are directly in harm’s way of this unchecked, reckless increase in oil transport by rail,” she said.

Correction: This story incorrectly stated the number of tanker-car loads of oil carried over railways in 2013. The correct number is about 400,000. This version has been corrected.