WV Oil Train Crash Cause: Broken Rail

Wednesday, October 14, 2015 @ 04:10 PM gHale

A fiery oil train derailment in southern West Virginia last February was the result of a broken rail that started with a crack missed in two inspections, federal investigators said.

A CSX train was carrying 3 million gallons of Bakken crude when it derailed Feb. 16 during a snowstorm in Mount Carbon. Twenty-seven of the train’s 109 cars derailed. Twenty cars leaked crude oil.

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The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said the broken rail resulted from a crack that had expanded. The problem ended up missed by CSX Corp. and a contractor on inspections in December 2014 and last January, said Sarah Feinberg, the FRA’s acting chief.

“This accident, like many rail accidents, was preventable,” Feinberg said.

Rail contractors drive along the tracks in trucks equipped with technology to take EKG — or sonar-type readings, searching for potential flaws and defects. Feinberg said the contractor’s equipment picked up a potential problem during the inspections, but the operator said later the problem appeared to be due to surface conditions, not a flaw in the rail.

If the operator had left the vehicle to inspect the location more closely or used a handheld device, “FRA investigators believe the rail defect could have been discovered prior to the derailment,” Feinberg said.

The rail was near the location of another broken rail discovered earlier by an FRA inspector that ended up repaired in May 2014.

FRA chief safety officer Bob Lauby said the sheer weight of trains likely played a role in expanding the crack in the rail. He believed weather wasn’t a factor.

CSX and the contractor received fines of $25,000 apiece for failing to verify a potential rail defect, the FRA said.

“Our country relies on the safe transportation of large quantities of energy products across the nation, and it is our responsibility to require operators to implement strict safety standards,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “FRA’s findings and action today should make it clear to rail operators that we will do exactly that.”

The derailment shot fireballs into the sky, burned down a nearby house and caused fires on the ground that smoldered for days.

The owner of the destroyed home ended up treated for inhalation injuries. No one else in the area suffered an injury.

The FRA said it will issue an advisory urging more detailed inspections where defects and flaws are suspected. It also will seek advanced training for rail inspection vehicle operators.

“There is a huge amount of track in this country,” Feinberg said. “Where we see a need for action in order to increase safety, we will not hesitate to take it. It is increasingly clear that as limits are pushed on rail wear, there is cause for concern and need for action.”

CSX said in a statement that it has fully complied with crude oil transportation safety regulations and is working with the federal government to improve inspections.

The derailment occurred about a mile outside the small college town of Montgomery while school was in session.

Oil from the tank cars left a sludge deposit in the Kanawha River and an adjoining creek, and a sheen along the shorelines, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Two water treatment plants downstream closed their intakes temporarily after the derailment and officials asked customers to conserve water.