Bomb Trains

People call them bomb trains: highly flammable oil from the Bakken Fields in North Dakota shipped by rail across North America. A spate of derailments and fires on the rails have concerned federal regulators that this particular oil is extremely flammable and corrosive to the tank cars used to transport it. On December 30th, just outside Casselton, ND, two trains collided, spilling nearly half a million gallons of crude. But last summer, the residents of Lac-Megantic, Canada were not so lucky, when a train carrying crude oil derailed and laid waste to half the downtown, killing 47 people. An accident of that magnitude in our own Virginia Avenue Tunnel would reach the Capitol Complex.

Such incidents, and the potential for “major loss of life,” led the National Transportation Safety Board to recommend that highly flammable materials, including crude oil and ethanol, be re-routed away from “populated and other sensitive areas,” something CSX has so far refused to do.

In recent community meetings, CSX representatives pushing the expansion of the Virginia Avenue rail tunnel here in the Capitol Hill neighborhood have waved away hazmat concerns, insisting they just bring “household goods” through DC and “don’t anticipate” bringing "unit trains" of crude through our densely populated community less than a mile from the Capitol.

While we’ve not seen crude-only (“unit”) trains, CSX admitted, when pressed by residents, that it has shipped crude through DC, the crude it “typically” moves is this more flammable Bakken crude, and there is no limit on the amount they could ship through our community.

In January, CEO Michael Ward told his shareholders they plan a 50% increase in crude shipments in 2014 alone. One key east coast destination for all of this crude appears to be a new crude-by-rail terminal at Yorktown, VA, served exclusively by CSX, which could accommodate up to 800 unit trains of crude per year (an average of over 200 tanker cars daily), and according to CSX maps, one route from Bakken to Yorktown runs through DC.

The larger Capitol Hill community deserves to know how much crude oil could come through our neighborhood – especially given CSX‘s current proposal to run even more trains than it does now, in an open trench on temporary tracks, during the entire proposed multi-year tunnel expansion phase. Even if CSX intersperses other commodities on trains carrying crude, any burning tanker cars would be devastating to our community.

Anya Landau French 

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