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Another oil train explodes in West Virginia. Here's why this keeps happening.

Oil containers sit at a train depot on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota.
Oil containers sit at a train depot on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota.
(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

It's one of the darker, violent aspects of the North American oil boom. We've been shipping a lot more crude oil by rail in recent years. And, on occasion, those trains can derail and explode — with horrific results.

West Virginia is now the latest casualty. On Monday, a CSX-owned freight train traveling through Fayette County went off the rails and burst into flame. Two nearby towns had to evacuate, and a water-treatment plant shut down after concern that oil seeped into the Kanawha River. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has declared a state of emergency for the county.

It's still unclear what caused the derailment. Early reports suggest 9 or 10 tank cars caught fire, and one person was being treated for smoke inhalation.(CSX said the tank cars were a newer model, not a widely used older version known to be especially prone to puncture.) The AP got video of the fireball:

This is the second derailment of an oil train along this CSX line in less than a year. In April 2014, a train crashed in Lynchburg, Virginia, and caught fire, with thousands of gallons of crude spilling into the James River. Meanwhile, an oil train in northern Ontario derailed and caught fire just last Thursday.

These aren't isolated incidents. Since 2006, there have been at least 17 major accidents involving trains carrying crude or ethanol in the US and Canada — including the notorious explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people. Here's a rundown of what's behind this trend:

More trains are carrying crude, leading to more accidents

lac-megantic oil

Photo dated July 6, 2013 shows firefighters dousing blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Quebec. The accident left 47 dead. (Francois Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

The simplest reason for the uptick in oil accidents is that trains are carrying more crude. In recent years, thanks to advances in drilling technology, both North Dakota and western Canada have seen massive growth in oil production. But there aren't enough pipelines to ship all that crude to market.

So, instead, more and more trains are transporting crude and petroleum: over 15,000 carloads per week and 1.5 million barrels per day. Nearly 10 percent of US crude now moves by rail:

(Energy Information Administration)

The vast, vast majority of trains don't derail or spill. But a small percentage do, with the biggest risks in extreme weather. And when there's a big increase in rail traffic, there's likely to be an uptick in accidents and leaks, as well.

An investigation by Curtis Tate of McClatchy found that trains spilled more oil in 2013 — about 1.1 million gallons — than in the previous four decades combined. That included major derailments in Aliceville, Alabama and Casselton, North Dakota, but it also included many smaller incidents, too:


Canada has also seen several big accidents. Most gruesomely, in July 2013, an unattended oil train carrying particularly volatile from North Dakota crashed into downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, causing a series of gigantic explosions, destroying buildings, and killing 47 people.

Two problems: Volatile oil and older, flawed tank cars

A DOT-111 tank car, specification 111A100W1, constructed by fusion welding carbon steel. (Harvey Henkelmann/Wikimedia Commons)

Different rail accidents often have different causes. Operator failure was a huge reason behind the Lac-Mégantic disaster, for instance. But experts have pointed to a few common problems in many recent crashes:

1) The newer oil is more volatile: Crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota — where much of the new oil-by-rail is coming from — is lighter and more combustible than many types of crude.* The trains in the Lac-Mégantic and West Virginia accidents were both carrying crude from this region.

Federal regulators have begun stepping up inspections of shipments from the Bakken, and North Dakota is considering rules that may require certain crudes to be treated to reduce volatility before shipping. These regulations could, however, potentially raise costs for the oil industry.

2) Outdated cars: Another big issue is that the majority of trains carrying crude still use DOT-111 tank cars — older models dating back to the 1960s with serious design flaws. In an accident, the shells of these trains can rupture more easily.

DOT-111 tank cars were in use in the major accidents in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec; Casselton, North Dakota; and Aliceville, Alabama. Deborah Hersman, the former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, has said these trains are simply "not safe" to carry hazardous liquids like crude oil.

There are more than 220,000 of these older DOT-111s in service, with 92,000 or so still transporting oil and other flammable liquids. The industry has voluntarily upgraded about 14,000 cars to add thicker walls and other protections, but retrofitting all of them could cost $1 billion or more.

Last October, the US Department of Transportation proposed new rules to require thicker steel, newer braking systems, and lower speeds on both new and existing tank cars. US regulators are mulling a timetable that may phase out the use of DOT-111s for carrying volatile crude within four years or so. Canada's regulators are pushing for a more aggressive phase-out, by 2017.

That said, even newer cars aren't immune from spills. CSX said that the train that erupted and burst into flames in West Virginia on Monday was actually newer model CPC 1232 with safety upgrades that the industry had adopted four years ago. Likewise, the car that caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2014 was a newer model with thicker steel.

3) Trains going too fast. Some analysts have also argued that railroads are pushing their shipments too fast, increasing the risk of accidents. Last year, the industry agreed to slow the speed of large trains carrying Bakken crude to 40 miles per hour in cities (down from 50 miles per hour). But it's not clear how much this will help. As Politico reported last year, most recent major accidents have involved trains going slower than 40 mph.

Cities don't always know if volatile crude is passing through

(Oil Change International)

Most of the oil-by-rail routes around the United States are easy to map — Oil Change International made an interactive map here.

But there's a catch: As Russell Gold of the Wall Street Journal recently reported, it's extremely difficult for most people to find out whether trains carrying the most volatile types of crude are passing through their town.

Ever since the Lac-Mégantic explosion, US regulators have ordered rail companies to tell states about trains carrying volatile crude from the Bakken through specific counties. Yet states don't make this information easy to find, and railroads have been pushing them to keep it secret. Their argument? Publicizing this info could make trains more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The secrecy is striking. If an oil company were proposing to run a crude-oil pipeline through a city, there would be public hearings and environmental reviews. After all, there's a real risk of a spill. But if highly flammable oil gets shipped through by train, there are no hearings and little public oversight — even though the trains can, on occasion, explode spectacularly.

Through painstaking reporting, the Journal was able to piece together maps about key oil routes running from the Bakken through counties around the United States. Their piece worth reading in full.

Rail accidents are one key aspect of the Keystone XL debate

Joe Posner/Vox

(Joe Posner/Vox)

As oil production grows in Canada and North Dakota, energy companies have been pushing for new pipelines to transport their crude to market.

One of these proposed pipelines is the controversial Keystone XL expansion, which would carry 830,000 barrels per day from the oil sands of Alberta down to refineries on the Gulf Coast. President Obama is currently deciding whether to approve or deny the pipeline.

Environmentalists have opposed this pipeline because they want to constrain production in the oil sands — crude from there is worse for global warming than regular crude. Back in 2013, though, the State Department argued that this wouldn't make much difference, since even if the pipeline was blocked, much of Alberta's oil would get carried by rail anyway.

But if accidents continue, there's a real chance that regulations could get much stricter — and rail may become a less viable option. Indeed, the State Department's review found that some of the rail routes that would carry crude from Alberta's oil sands were three to eight times more likely to spill than Keystone XL was.

That could be seen as a stronger argument in favor of Keystone — it's much safer than trains. But it could also be seen as a potential weak spot for the continued growth of North America's oil boom.

* Correction: This post originally stated that Bakken crude was more volatile than other types of oil because of the presence of chemicals like benzene and so forth. That appears to be wrong. The higher volatility is more likely due to the presence of gases like ethane and butane. See Chemjobber for a great rundown.

Further reading

-- Kathryn Wolfe and Bob King of Politico wrote a long and terrific analysis of the exploding train situation back in 2014.

-- 9 questions about the Keystone XL pipeline you were too embarrassed to ask.