James River Association pushes for reform after oil spill

We came this close to disaster last month. Here’s what a local organization wants changed.

“We absolutely dodged a bullet with this spill,” said Adrienne Kotula, policy specialist at the James River Association, about the derailment, explosion, and subsequent oil spilt into the James River three weeks ago in Lynchburg. The bullet dodged were the rail cars that didn’t explode.

On April 30th, a CSX train carrying crude oil in 105 cars departed North Dakota on its way to Yorktown, Virginia. Freight operator CSX took control when the train reached Chicago.

While traveling through downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, 13 of of the train’s cars derailed. Three fell into the James River. One exploded.

The accident forced the evacuation of 350 residents and spilled 30,000 gallons of oil in the James River, causing City officials to question whether the city’s water supply would be contaminated. Luckily, it wasn’t.

“We’re waiting for the official NTSF [National Transportation Safety Board] report to come out, so we don’t know the official cause of the derailment and subsequent explosion and oil spill,” Kotula said. That report should come within a year.

“Even though we don’t know the official cause, there are several key things that could have prevented this case,” Kotula said.

The James River Association (JRA) recently wrote letters to Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Virginia members of Congress urging for new rules and regulations regarding the rail transportation of toxic chemicals.

“We are playing a game of Russian Roulette every day with these trains,” Kotula said. “Hopefully, we will be able to avoid another incident by taking these steps.”


“We want to make sure localities are aware of what’s being stored and transported through their boundaries so they can take the best steps that they need to protect the citizenry, the environment they’re responsible for,” Kotula said.

She referenced a recent article wherein the director of public safety in Virginia’s Allegheny County, Ryan Muterspaugh, said that railway companies seldom provide information regarding freight content and frequency of rail cars that pass through. “The railways are not as forthcoming with their transportation information as we (or anyone) would probably like them to be,” Muterspaugh told the author.

Kotula said that Allegheny and Amber counties (and likely others) “have not been contacted in any recent time by the rail industry to let them know what was going through their locality.”

The issue of transparency took a positive step forward recently when the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued emergency rules requiring, according to Kotula, that “state emergency response commissions…start the process of being in contact with the rail industry and start the communication-improving steps.” The JRA is in the process of debriefing Lynchburg officials to determine if, and to what extent, they knew crude oil was passing through their city.

Rail cars

Crude facts

  • Rail cars carrying crude oil in 2008 • 9,500
  • Rail cars carrying crude oil in 2013 • 400,000+
  • 1.1 million gallons of crude oil spilled in rail accidents in 2013, more than previous 35 years combined (source)

Last year, 47 people died in Quebec after multiple rail cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded. The crude oil was kept in model DOT-111 rail cars. Earlier this year, a member of the NTSB called the DOT-111 cars an “[unacceptable public risk][risk]” due to their outdated design.

“The one that actually exploded in Lynchburg was supposed to be the newer, safer rail car for the transport of crude oil,” Kotula said. Several of the rail cars involved in the Lynchburg derailment, including the one that exploded, were the CPC-1232 model, which has a thicker shell and better counters rollovers than its predecessors.

Kotula doesn’t think the model is safe enough. “The train was only going 24 mph and it still exploded,” she said. “So there are obviously some necessary improvements in rail car safety that still need to occur.”

When asked what those necessary improvements are, Kotula was uncertain. “It’s somewhat of an unknown right now what the increases in safety need to be. We’re embarking on that journey to find out.”

Bakken crude

Kotula also called for more research into Bakken crude, the oil responsible for last year’s destruction in Quebec, which was spilled into the James River last month.

Last year, the USDOT launched an investigation into the largely unknown makeup of Bakken crude, thought to have large amounts of methane and propane, both highly explosive.

Kotula said Bakken crude is “being transported in very high volumes right now.” Further research into the oft-transported oil is vital “so that we can increase the ability of these rail cars to properly contain it.”

What about CSX?

Kotula said that JRA’s relationship with CSX–which operates trains over 21,000 miles of track in 23 states–has been amicable. “They have been very receptive to our suggestions, and they’ve been very responsible in taking the necessary actions to address the monitoring that needs to happen, the clean-up that needs to happen,” she said.

Melanie Cost, spokesperson for CSX, sent this statement to RVANews via email, praising JRA and commenting on rail safety:

CSX appreciates that the movement of hazardous materials by rail, including crude oil, is a topic of concern for citizens in Richmond and across the country. CSX places the highest priority on the safety of the communities where we live and work, and upholds the strictest operating procedures for transporting crude oil and hazardous materials of all types. Those safe operating practices are the sum of federal regulations, industry commitments, and additional and distinct company initiatives focused on prevention, preparedness and mitigation.

CSX invests heavily in its track and infrastructure to ensure a safe, reliable and efficient network. The company is fulfilling its commitments to further enhance the safe transport of crude oil as agreed between the Association of American Railroads and USDOT, including slower speeds through urban areas, increased track inspections, and continuing efforts to promote strong, long-term coordination with state and local officials, as well as emergency responders across the CSX network to focus on key rail safety initiatives.

CSX faces no charges over the Lynchburg spill.

Community outreach

JRA recently held a debriefing in Lynchburg, speaking to city officials and residents about the recent derailment and oil spill. The JRA will continue its community outreach to discuss rail safety and James River preservation with meetings in Richmond and other Virginia cities. “It’s something that we look forward to getting more people involved in,” Kotula said.

She encouraged people who wish to see new rules and regulations regarding rail transportation of crude oil to contact their elected representatives “at the federal level, the state level, and the local level. Let them know this is a concern.”

She and JRA hope that the recent Lynchburg spill, as well as others in the region and across North America, will produce changes so that “another accident will not occur…[so] that we won’t have to dodge another bullet,” she said.


photo by John Mueller

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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