After a CSX Corp. train carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil derailed and exploded in West Virginia last week, the company is quietly rerouting its volatile cargo through 16 Virginia cities and counties, according to Reuters.
Among those is Pembroke, a riverside town with a population of about 1,128. After visiting Pembroke and speaking with store owners and town officials, Reuters reporter Edward McAllister said “barely anyone” aside from the 35-member fire department was aware that large oil trains would be hugging the nearby New River and briefly traveling through town limits.
This is an issue that’s been largely overlooked in the debate about the safety of oil trains: secrecy. Many people who live near railroad lines across the country want to know what trains are carrying, where they’re going, and when they’re coming through. But railroads argue that is a security hazard, and that only emergency services agencies, like fire departments, need to know that information. Federal right-to-know laws exempt CSX and other shipping companies from having to disclose it.
The U.S. Department of Transportation began to rethink that exemption last year, following a string of explosive and deadly oil train accidents. In May, it implemented an emergency rule requiring all rail companies to tell state emergency response agencies when trains carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil would pass through their jurisdiction.
That emergency rule received strong pushback from the railroad industry. It argued that companies already provided that information to local emergency responders, and that the rule forced them to “unnecessarily reveal confidential business and security information.” “Terrorist issues” were also cited by at least one rail company spokesman.
The rule went through despite that pushback. But this Reuters report on the situation in Virginia shows it’s doing little to inform actual community members that oil trains will be coming through their towns. Specifically, trains carrying anywhere from 1 million to 3 million gallons of Bakken crude oil are expected to run through the Norfolk Southern line this week — a line that normally never carries oil.
Another thing members of the Virginia communities may not know is that Bakken crude oil may be more prone to catching fire and exploding than other types of crude. According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s the most explosive type compared to oil from 86 other locations worldwide, and The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has confirmed that it can catch fire at lower temperatures than heavier oil.
It’s not just sleepy Virginia towns that deal with rail transparency issues. In the southeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C., residents are currently fighting CSX Corp.’s plan to reconstruct and expand a freight train tunnel, which they believe could result in trains carrying oil and hazardous materials through an open trench in the city. CSX has a voluntary agreement with D.C. officials not to transport oil or hazmats through the city, but it’s just that: voluntary. The company can renege on that agreement at any time, with no threat of punishment.
In Pembroke, McAllister reported that residents were meeting the news with “everything from concern to apathy.” One voiced worry that their properties were so close to the tracks. Another expressed fear about how an oil spill could impact the river. A third — Pembroke’s fire chief — said everything would probably be fine.
“As long as the trains stay upright,” he said.