The railroad cars involved in the fiery derailment in West Virginia on Monday were a newer model that was supposed to be safer than older tankers blamed in other recent oil train explosions.
The ruptured cars were built to specifications adopted by the railroad industry in 2011 amid criticism that older tankers were dangerously susceptible to puncture and a risk of explosion. Called CPC 1232 cars, the newer tankers were also involved in an April 2014 derailment and explosion in Lynchburg, Va.
The specifications for the newer cars were issued by the Association of American Railroads, whose members include major freight carriers in North America. They came amid concerns that older models called DOT-111s, which still carry a majority of the crude oil shipped by rail, were unsafe.
CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost confirmed Tuesday that the ruptured tankers that caught fire were CPC 1232 models.
“If these two incidents involved the tank cars that meet the internal industry standards, that’s very problematic,” said Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University who specializes in environmental issues. “It’s a strong indication that self-policing within the industry is not sufficiently protecting the public.”
The train, hauling 107 tank cars of crude oil, each car carrying more than 30,000 gallons, was bound from North Dakota to a depot in Yorktown, Va., along the same route used by the train that exploded in Lynchburg last year.
Had the derailment occurred 35 miles earlier, while the train passed through the capital city of Charleston, W.Va., “it could have been catastrophic. It could rank up there with the worst industrial catastrophes in the history of the country,” Mr. McGinley said.
The fire, which continued to burn Tuesday, rekindled calls for tighter regulation of, or an outright moratorium on, rail shipments of volatile crude oil from the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota and Montana.
Railroads are “putting a huge percentage of this oil traffic in cars that have repeatedly had safety issues,” said Rob Altenburg, director of the energy center of PennFuture, an environmental advocacy organization. “It’s a really dangerous situation all the way around.”
Mr. Altenburg said the organization hasn’t called for an outright ban on oil trains but is concerned about the safety of DOT-111 tankers, which have been involved in several fiery accidents in recent years, including a July 2013 explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
“What you saw happen in Quebec you hope is a worst-case scenario,” said Eddie Scher, spokesman for ForestEthics, an environmental group based in Washington state that joined the Sierra Club in suing the U.S. Department of Transportation last year to try to force DOT-111 cars out of service immediately. “But there might be a much worse scenario that could occur.”
The railroad industry favors regulations that would phase out or retrofit the older cars over a period of several years. Taking them out of service faster would cause shortages that would inhibit the growing domestic production of oil, the Association of American Railroads said in comments on proposed new federal rules.
“The increased movement of crude oil, in particular, represents America’s move toward energy independence,” the association said in a statement last year.
The Department of Transportation announced last month that it was delaying the issuance of final rules until May. Critics have said the regulations will leave dangerous cars in service for years.
Trains hauling crude oil from North Dakota and Montana to East Coast refineries pass regularly through the heart of Pittsburgh.
Up to 75 trains, each loaded with at least 1 million gallons, pass through Allegheny County each week, according to records provided by the railroads under a federal government emergency order last year.
The trains move on lines that pass through Downtown near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, crossing the Allegheny River, and next to Station Square.
In reports to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, Norfolk Southern Railway said it operates 30 to 65 oil trains per week in the county; CSX said two to 10 trains per week operate here.
Oil trains also pass through Armstrong, Beaver, Bedford, Erie, Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties.
Norfolk Southern said its oil trains operate on five lines in Allegheny County. CSX identified two routes in the county.
Norfolk Southern’s Conemaugh line travels through Vandergrift, Freeport, Tarentum, Springdale and Etna before reaching the North Side. The Fort Wayne line travels through the North Side and parallels the Ohio River through Sewickley toward Beaver County. The Pittsburgh line from Central Pennsylvania passes Altoona, Johnstown, Latrobe, Greensburg and Jeannette before entering Allegheny County and traveling through Turtle Creek, Pitcairn, Wilkinsburg and Edgewood to reach Downtown Pittsburgh.
The railroad’s Mon line travels through Esplen, the South Side, Homestead and Dravosburg. It also said it operates oil trains on its short Port Perry Branch from North Versailles to Duquesne.
CSX reported that its trains use the Pittsburgh route, which includes nearly 66 miles of track within Allegheny County and passes through the heart of Station Square and the South Side. Oil is transported on one other line, the P&W subdivision, which originates in Rankin, follows the Monongahela River to Greenfield, then turns north toward Bloomfield.
There have been several accidents in addition to those in Quebec, Virginia and West Virginia.
Last February, 21 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying crude oil barreled off the tracks on a curve in Vandergrift, many of the tankers tumbling onto their sides. No one was hurt, and the thick oil that leaked from three of the derailed cars was contained before it could enter drains or the nearby Kiskiminetas River.
A month earlier, seven cars of a 101-car train left the tracks on a bridge over the Schuylkill River and the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia, forcing closure of the busy highway for a time. The incident left an oil tanker and boxcar leaning sideways over the side of the bridge. CSX said six of the seven derailed cars were carrying crude oil.
In December 2013, an oil train collided with a derailed car from another train outside Casselton, N.D. The crash spilled more than 400,000 gallons of oil, generated a fireball and forced the evacuation of 1,400 people within a 5-mile radius.
The month before, an oil train derailed in rural Alabama and burst into flames that took several days to extinguish.
“It doesn’t appear that this threat is being taken seriously,” Mr. McGinley said. “This might be a situation where legislation is needed rather than leaving the issue to an administrative agency to go through this long rule-making process.”
The federal government’s delay in finalizing stricter regulations is “outrageous,” Mr. Scher said. “We don’t need another accident or any more information to know that these trains are too dangerous to be passing on rail through our cities.”
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published February 17, 2015 11:58 AM