Amid controversy, oil trains quietly rerouted through Virginia towns

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 20, 2015 2:10 PM

By Edward McAllister and Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) - Hundreds of communities across the United States have become accustomed to the sight of mile-long oil trains rumbling by in recent years. Pembroke, Virginia, was not one of them, until now.

CSX Corp is temporarily rerouting up to five oil trains through this small riverside town to bypass the site of an explosive oil train derailment that occurred 90 miles north in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, on Monday. The trains will likely travel instead on a track that hugs the New River and at one point sweeps into the Pembroke town limits.

In line with a federal protocol established last year following a string of fiery derailments across North America, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management on Tuesday informed 16 counties and cities that oil trains could be coming through their towns, local officials and fire departments said, one day after the Mount Carbon derailment. Those counties passed the information on to local emergency responders.

"They sent us information and gave us an emergency response guide sheet," said Chris Neice, Pembroke's fire chief.

CSX has notified the state that as many as five trains, each carrying between about 24,000 and 70,000 barrels of oil, will be rerouted, according to Jeff Stern, state coordinator at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. The trains will run along a Norfolk Southern line that normally transports coal and freight, not oil, until the main route is restored.

That this is happening with little fanfare in Pembroke and potentially hundreds of other cities and towns along this track stretching as far as Ohio, highlights how ubiquitous oil trains have become in the United States, where crude-by-rail is an essential, yet sometimes explosive, fix for an overwhelmed pipeline network.

Apart from emergency services, which include a 35-person volunteer fire department, barely anyone in Pembroke is aware, according to interviews with officials and store owners in the town. None of the people in the town of 1,128 said they had seen such a train yet. CSX acknowledged the rerouting, but did not say how long it would last.

Monday's West Virginia incident involved a 109-car oil train that came off the rails, exploded, burned down a building and caused the evacuation of two nearby towns. No one was seriously injured.

The accident was the latest in a string of explosive oil train derailments, including one into the James River in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, in April last year. The incidents have prompted calls for stricter transport standards and raised concern for residents near train lines across the country.

The worst accident yet, in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013, killed 47 people.

RESIDENTS WORRIED

In Pembroke, word of new hazardous freight has begun to worry local residents.

A major derailment could "wipe out" a riverside campsite situated near the tracks, said Jerry Gautier, 66, who knew about the trains because he is president of the town's volunteer fire department. "It worries me, my camper is 20 yards from the track."

Eddie O'Dell, manager at a local cafe, said he was worried about oil getting into the river, a kayaking and fishing hub in summer.

"You look at what happened in Lynchburg and the cars went into the river. I am most concerned about a spill," said O'Dell.

Local fire departments, many of them volunteer outfits, were provided with documents including details on the chemical make-up of crude oil and a government order explaining Virginia's oil train safety procedures, according to emails seen by Reuters.

Little other information was provided, but Chris Armstrong, a lieutenant of the fire department in Richmond, Virginia - the state's second-largest city, population 214,000 - was also informed this week that oil trains could run through Richmond. He said his department had already received training to deal with chlorine and ethanol spills, which would help it react to oil accidents.

Marci Stone, emergency management coordinator for the City of Roanoke, said its fire department had also received training to deal with hazardous materials.

Meanwhile, the residents of Pembroke - who like others contacted for this story were unaware of the new potential change in cargo until informed of the notice by Reuters - met the news with everything from concern to apathy.

Neice, Pembroke's fire chief, was not worried. "As long as the trains stay upright, we will be fine."

(Reporting by Edward McAllister and Jarrett Renshaw in New York; editing by Jonathan Leff and Matthew Lewis)