Crude oil is pouring into a river that supplies drinking water and approximately 1,000 people have been evacuated from their homes due to an oil train derailment and explosion in southern West Virginia on Monday, according to media reports.
The train, owned by CSX Corp., was carrying more than 100 tankers of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota when it derailed at about 1:30 p.m., the L.A. Times reported. Officials estimated that approximately 14 of those tankers were involved in the derailment and subsequent fire, which as of 9 p.m. was still raging. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency at around 5:40 p.m.
One home has so far been confirmed destroyed, and at least one person has been sent to the hospital for inhaling smoke. CSX put out a statement Monday night saying it would provide hotel rooms for displaced residents.
Concerns have also been raised about the potential contamination of local water-treatment facilities, after officials noted that at least one of the derailed tanker cars fell into the Kanawha River. The area is about 30 miles from the location where 10,000 gallons of a coal industry chemical called crude MCHM spilled and tainted the drinking water supply a little over one year ago.
Response efforts have so far been hampered by heavy snow. The area has been under a winter storm warning, according to the Associated Press, and is expected to get anywhere from 5 to 10 inches of snow tonight.
The derailment in West Virginia was the second major oil train mishap this weekend. Late Saturday night, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in northern Ontario, Canada, spilling oil and causing a fire. In that incident, 29 of the 100 cars on the train went off the track near Timmins, Ontario. An “unknown amount” of oil was spilled.
Some research has suggested that Bakken shale crude oil is 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.
Allegations were raised about the volatility of Bakken shale light crude oil after a number of high-profile train derailments and subsequent explosions, most famously including the deadly Lac-Mégantic, Canada disaster, which killed 47 people. Officials at PHMSA 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.
Though much of the political discussion over fossil fuels has recently focused on Canadian tar sands oil and a certain proposed pipeline that would carry it, it’s worth noting that Bakken shale oil is primarily shipped by rail. Indeed, up to 90 percent of the North Dakota’s oil was expected to be shipped by rail, rather than pipeline, in 2014.
The U.S. Transportation Department is currently considering whether to implement tougher safety regulations for rail shipments of crude oil.