A CSX inspection of railroad track in Lynchburg found a defect in the rail the day before 17 tanker cars carrying highly volatile crude oil derailed in the city’s downtown on April 30, a state official said Wednesday.
Massoud Tahamtani, director of the State Corporation Commission Division of Utility and Railroad Safety, told a state rail safety task force about the defect, but could not elaborate on its nature or whether it contributed to the wreck, which resulted in three cars tumbling into the James River and one burning up.
“We don’t know what (the defect) is,” Tahamtani said after the initial meeting of the Rail Safety & Security Task Force, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe created after the derailment.
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Tahamtani said railroads have up to 30 days to analyze and act on defects identified in safety inspections.
“CSX told one of my inspectors after the accident and that the company was in the process of addressing it,” Tahamtani said in an email to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
CSX deferred comment to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident.
“This is information that the NTSB is collecting that is part of the ongoing investigation,” said board spokesman Keith Holloway. “I do not have anything to add at this time.”
The NTSB revealed in early May that CSX had inspected the track for microscopic defects on April 29 but did not say what the inspection had found. Lead investigator Jim Southworth said the board would reconstruct the pieces of affected track as part of an investigation that will take at least a year to complete.
The SCC and the Federal Railroad Administration share responsibility for inspecting railroad tracks across Virginia, but the state agency previously was not responsible for the section of track where the accident occurred.
Subsequently, the state has voluntarily assumed a role inspecting the CSX line that runs from western Virginia and along the James River through Lynchburg and downtown Richmond to the Peninsula. The line is used by “unit trains” of more than 100 tanker cars filled with crude oil sent from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota to a storage and transfer terminal in Yorktown.
The SCC and federal railroad agency each have two inspectors to cover the state, Tahamtani said. “The point that needs to be made here is the railroads are responsible for the safety of their tracks.”
State and federal inspections have increased in frequency since the derailment from every 60 days to every 30 days, he told the task force.
However, Tahamtani added, “The commission has no authority for enforcement under the (Federal Railroad Safety Act).”
The SCC also does not have access to inspection information collected by the Federal Railroad Administration, he said. “We don’t know how many times they inspect, what they find, or what happens to it.”
The increased inspection frequency conforms to the 30-day window that railroads have for analyzing and addressing concerns identified by inspections, including the one that CSX conducted in Lynchburg before the derailment.
Generally, Tahamtani said, “When you tell them something is a problem, they get to it and get it fixed.”
Timely sharing of information on rail shipments of Bakken crude oil was a major issue raised in the first meeting of the task force, which was troubled that a new federal railroad reporting requirement applies only to trains carrying at least 1 million gallons. The train that derailed in Lynchburg had 105 tanker cars capable of carrying more than 3 million gallons of crude oil.
The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order last month that requires the railroads to share detailed information about the shipments with state emergency response councils so that fire and rescue workers know what kind of hazards they may face in responding to a train wreck.
The deadline is approaching this weekend for railroads to provide the information to the emergency councils, which then would share it with local emergency response agencies and the governor’s office.
“We still have not sorted out those protocols yet with the railroads,” said Jeff Stern, state coordinator of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne expressed concern that state and local emergency officials would not be notified of rail shipments of less oil than the 1 million gallon threshold.
Layne said notification for both rail and truck shipments of hazardous materials should be “based primarily on what is the substance, not how much of it.”
The Bakken crude oil presents potential hazards to firefighters and rescue workers because of its volatility.
A train derailment in Quebec last July killed 47 people and burned much of the town of Lac-Mégantic.
In Lynchburg, three of the 17 derailed cars tumbled into the James. One was punctured and burst into towering flames, which firefighters allowed to burn off. Up to 31,000 gallons of oil either burned or spilled into the river.
“The volatility, flammability of this (crude oil) is greater than what we’re used to seeing,” Stern said.
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