Hundreds of families were evacuated and nearby water treatment plants were temporarily shut down after 19 tanker cars left the tracks and caught fire, leaking oil into a Kanawha River tributary and burning a nearby house down to its foundation.
"There's nothing there," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who toured the scene. "All you can see is a couple of blocks sticking out of the ground. There's some pickup trucks out front completely burned to the ground."
One person — the homeowner — was treated for smoke inhalation, but no other injuries were reported, according to the train company, CSX. The two-person crew, an engineer and conductor, managed to decouple the train's engines from the wreck behind it and walk away unharmed.
The train derailed near unincorporated Mount Carbon, two miles after passing through Montgomery, a town of 1,946, on a stretch where the rails wind along a narrow flood plain, past businesses and homes that crowd the bases of steep, tree-covered hills.
Fire crews had little choice Tuesday but to let the tanks burn themselves out. Each carries up to 30,000 gallons of crude.
Rail shipments of crude have increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to more than 435,000 in 2013, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana. Limited pipeline capacity there forces about 70 per cent of the crude to reach refineries by rail, according to American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.
The downside: Trains hauling Bakken-region oil have been involved in major accidents in Virginia, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Alabama and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed by an explosive derailment in 2013. Reports of oil leaking from railroad tank cars also are increasing, from 12 in 2008 to 186 last year, according to Department of Transportation records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Just Saturday — two days before the West Virginia wreck — 29 cars of a 100-car Canadian National Railway train carrying Bakken crude derailed in a remote, wooded area about 50 miles south of Timmins, Ontario, spilling oil and catching fire.
This train was bound for an oil shipping depot in Yorktown, Virginia, using model 1232 tank cars, which include safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago. An estimated $7 billion has been spent to put 57,000 of these cars into service, according to the Railway Supply Institute.
But a similar accident, also involving model 1232s, happened along the same route in Lynchburg, Virginia, last year. It was one of a series of ruptures and fires that prompted the Obama Administration to consider requiring upgrades such as thicker tanks, shields to prevent tankers from crumpling, rollover protections and electronic brakes that could make cars stop simultaneously, rather than slam into each other.
Some of these measures would cost billions more and have been strongly opposed by the oil and rail industries.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that its investigators are looking at detailed damage reports and photographs of the derailed tank cars provided by CSX and the Federal Railroad Administration. Investigators will compare the data with tank car design specifications and similar derailments, including one near Casselton, N.D., when a train over 100 cars long created a huge fireball that forced the evacuation of the farming town, and the accident that sent three tank cars plunging into the James River, prompting an evacuation in downtown Lynchburg.
"This accident is another reminder of the need to improve the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail," said Christopher Hart, NTSB's acting chairman.
Snow was falling heavily Monday — as much as 7 inches in some places — but it's not clear if the weather contributed to the derailment, which happened about 30 miles southeast of Charleston. All but two of the 109 cars were tankers, and 26 of them left the tracks, the governor's spokesman Chris Stadelman said. The two locomotives stayed on the track as the cars behind them began derailing, a CSX spokesman said.
No cause has been determined, said CSX regional vice-president Randy Cheetham. He said the tracks had been inspected just three days before the wreck.
"They will be looking at all factors," Cheetham said. "They'll look at train handling, look at the track, look at the cars. But until they get in there and do their investigation, it's unwise to do any type of speculation."
Sen. Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin deferred questions on whether changes need to be made in safety laws.
"Obviously, we want to assure that when trains move through the state and on through the other states, that they're operating safely. Those will be issues that will probably be resolved by our federal partners as we continue this investigation," Tomblin said.
By Tuesday evening, Appalachian Power crews were restoring electricity after the train downed a power line. Water treatment plants were back online, and most of the local residents were back home.
The West Virginia National Guard was taking water samples to determine whether the oil that spilled into Armstrong Creek reached the Kanawha River, which supplies drinking water to thousands of West Virginians. So far, "we haven't been able to determine how much, if any, crude oil made it into the river," state Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said.
West Virginia University Tech in nearby Montgomery cancelled this week's classes for lack of water, but three rounds of testing showed no crude oil at the intake for the Montgomery plant, whose customers were told to boil water for several days.
If approved, the increased safety requirements now under White House review would phase out tens of thousands of the older tank cars being used to carry highly flammable liquids.
Meanwhile, railroads that carry Bakken crude are required to disclose where their trains travel to state emergency officials, under a federal order issued last year covering all shipments of a million gallons or more. CSX called this information proprietary, but more than 20 states rejected its argument, making the information available to the general public as well as first-responders. West Virginia is among those keeping it secret.
West Virginia officials responded to an Associated Press Freedom of Information request in October by releasing documents that were redacted to remove nearly all the details about the trains rolling through the state's towns. There are no plans to reconsider after this latest derailment, said Melissa Cross, a program manager for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Contributors include Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C.; Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana; and Pam Ramsey in Charleston, West Virginia. Mattise reported from Charleston.