In the latest in a string of railroad accidents, residents of a West Virginia town were evacuated on Monday, when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, setting at least one home ablaze.
The CSX train went off the rails in Fayette County at around 1:30 this afternoon. Thick black smoke wafted from the wreckage and huge fireballs shot hundreds of feet in the air. No injuries have been reported, but authorities evacuated the area around the derailment amid a winter storm that dropped as much as five inches of snow on some parts of the county.
According to the Charleston Daily Mail, at least one tanker car fell into the Kanawha River that runs adjacent to the tracks, forcing the shutdown of a water treatment plant about three miles from the scene that serves about 2,000 customers. Another plant further downstream also closed after the accident, according to an Associated Press report. A 911 dispatcher told the Daily Mail oil was leaking from at least one car.
Residents are being moved to a shelter at Valley High School, where the Red Cross is providing food, a place to sleep, and other necessities. "We'll be in that community as long as they need us," Erica Mani, CEO of American Red Cross West Virginia region, told the Daily Mail.
Amateur video posted to Twitter by Charleston's WOWK television station showed the ferociousness of the flames that continued to burn hours after the derailment.
"It looks like a mushroom cloud, it looks like a bomb went off," Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told VICE News. "It's just an incredibly huge fireball that's still burning. We're just hoping that the people in this community are safe and that we'll have something to learn about how this could have happened and things that we can do to prevent it in the future."
The train was carrying light crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota, Rosser said, which is particularly volatile. The fire is expected to burn until at least midnight and had already caused power outages.
"It's kind of a chaotic crisis on many fronts right now," Rosser told VICE News.
The incident comes a day after a train carrying petroleum derailed in a remote part of northern Ontario, starting a fire that's still burning and spilling an unknown amount of crude.
The train, operated by Canadian National Railway Company, was travelling from Alberta to Quebec, traveling 38 miles per hour, when 29 cars derailed shortly after midnight on Sunday. Seven of the cars caught fire and were still burning as of Monday afternoon.
"The accident site itself is quite remote," Chris Krepski, a spokesperson with Canada's Transportation Safety Board, told VICE News. "It's not anywhere near any kind of populated area. There's no road access to where the accident happened."
The spill's remote location means that there were no injuries or other threats to the public, Krepski said, but the conditions are difficult for Canadian National cleanup crews and for the two Safety Board investigators working on site.
Temperatures plunged to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit overnight into Monday morning, Canadian National spokesperson Patrick Waldron said. Workers moved some of the derailed cars away from the ones that continue to burn. Once the fire is extinguished, said Waldron, the track will be repaired and environmental cleanup begun.
"Our environmental crews have determined the spilled product has been contained in the derailment area on the frozen, snow-covered surface," Waldron told VICE News. "No waterways appear to have been affected by the spilled product."
There's no estimate yet for how much oil has been spilled.
"It's very much sort of the initial data gathering we're doing right now," Krepski told VICE News. "Later on, once the area's been cleaned up, we're going to take a closer look at the tank cars to see how they performed in the accident."
The cars are a type of tanker known as DOT-111s, which were originally designed in the 1960s and have been involved in many serious spills. In July 2013, a train made up of DOT-111s derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and spilling more than 1.5 million gallons of oil.
On February 4, the US Department of Transportation submitted to the White House for approval a proposal for tougher safety standards for railway cars carrying crude oil, which have come to be known as "bomb trains" for their tendency to explode in a spill. The new standards are expected to take the aging DOT-111s off the tracks and enact measures like stricter speed limits.
Prior to Monday's spill, the last major accident in the US took place in April, when 15 cars carrying crude derailed in Lynchburg, VA, spilling about 50,000 gallons of oil into the James River. Three of the cars caught fire.
In January, eleven tank cars carrying crude derailed in South Philadelphia. The cars remained upright and there were no spills or injuries. And the small town of Cassleton, ND, saw two derailments in less than a year, for a total of five in the last decade. In December 2013, nearly the entire 2,500-person town evacuated after an oil train crash into a train carrying soybeans that had derailed. The following November, an empty oil train collided with another derailed train about a mile from the previous crash, not far from an active ethanol plant.
In the absence of new pipelines, spills are growing in frequency as increasing oil and gas production in the US strains the railway systems. In 2014, 141 spills occurred along US railways — an all-time annual high.
"Waiting another two, three or five years for marginal improvements in oil train safety is not acceptable when these bomb trains keep derailing and setting towns and rivers on fire," Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. "Before more people die and more waterways are destroyed, it's time for our political leaders to put the brakes on oil-by-rail transport."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro