Climate

For Spilling Crude Oil Into A River, Company Will Pay $361,000

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Survey crews in boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va., Thursday, May 1, 2014.

Virginia environmental officials have proposed a $361,000 civil fine against CSX Transportation Inc. as punishment for a 2014 derailment that saw nearly 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil dumped in and around the James River.

In a consent order released Monday, the state Department of Environmental Quality said CSX should also pay the agency $18,574 for costs associated with investigating the April spill. In that incident, 17 oil tankers came off the tracks, and three were sent directly into the James. Local officials reported an explosion “causing extensive flames and dense black smoke.”

Virginia state authorities reported no impacts to water quality in the James, noting that more than 27,000 gallons of the spilled oil was burned off by the explosion and resulting fire. The consent order says that the 245 gallons of oil that entered the river’s embankment was “presumably recovered,” and that approximately 390 gallons of oil remain in the environment.

CSX is the same railroad company that sent West Virginia into a state of emergency last week, after one of its oil trains derailed and exploded in the town of Mount Carbon during a winter storm. That incident saw crude oil sent into the Kanawha river, and approximately 1,000 people evacuated from their homes. The oil that caught fire burned for two full days after the derailment.

Both last week CSX derailment and the company’s incident last spring involved what are known as unit trains of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale. Unit trains are freight trains that carry one single commodity, usually oil or coal, and can have anywhere from 60 to 200 cars.

It was a unit train of Bakken shale crude oil that also derailed in Lac Megantic, Canada, in 2013, a tragedy which killed 47 people and saw 26,400 gallons of oil spilled into the Chaudière River. As of 2014, Quebec had spent $16 million on river cleanup.

Research has suggested that Bakken shale crude oil may be more prone to catching fire and exploding than other types of crude. It’s the most explosive type compared to oil from 86 other locations worldwide, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, and The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has confirmed that it can catch fire at lower temperatures than heavier oil.

PHMSA officials have speculated that the oil’s explosive nature could be because of the particular properties of the oil, or the added chemicals from fracking, the primary technique used to extract it in North Dakota.

These accidents often spur oil pipeline advocates to push for more pipelines, yet data from PHMSA show that oil trains have more frequent accidents while oil pipelines have much larger accidents. IEA analysis of that data showed that from 2004 to 2012, pipelines in the U.S. spilled three times as much oil as oil trains did.