The oil train that derailed and burst into flame in West Virginia earlier this week had passed by Dyann Simile’s house just a few minutes earlier.
Now she can see the tank cars that didn’t derail parked outside her window. They’ve been sitting there for two days, with two locomotives idling constantly.
“It’s worrisome to see something like that in your backyard,” she said.
The railroad gave life to a cluster of towns along the south bank of the Kanawha River, including Pratt, Handley and Montgomery. A 20-track rail yard and locomotive shop in Handley once employed hundreds.
Trains no longer stop at the facility, but they still run past what little remains. Most of them carry coal, the economic lifeblood of the state, though production has declined recently. Many retired railroad workers still live in the hills and hollows of this rugged and scenic region. Almost everyone knows everyone else in the small towns in the area.
Starting in December 2013, trains started carrying a new commodity to these old railroad towns: crude oil extracted through hydraulic fracturing of North Dakota shale rock. Now, these communities are the latest to witness the dramatic consequences of a new energy bounty moving by rail.
The oil isn’t produced in West Virginia and doesn’t contribute directly to the state’s economy the same way coal does. But these Appalachian hamlets are on the most direct path between the wells of North Dakota and the refineries of the East Coast, and they bear the risks that come with transporting it.
On Monday, a 109-car CSX train bound from North Dakota to Yorktown, Va., derailed about three miles east of Montgomery. Of the 29 tank cars that derailed, 19 sustained severe damage. Several burst violently from the heat, sending their pressurized contents hundreds of feet into the chilly winter air in enormous fireballs.
John Taylor, the fire chief in South Charleston, W.Va., about 30 miles away, was in his truck in the neighborhood closest to the derailment when one of the tank cars exploded. He backed up as fast as he could, with his phone capturing it all on video.
“My ‘Spidey’ senses went off,” said Taylor, a 33-year firefighting veteran. “They told me to run like hell.”
One resident sustained minor injuries but barely escaped his burning house. It was at least the fourth fiery derailment involving a train carrying crude oil. In this derailment and others in Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia over the last year and a half, no one was killed.
“They were inconvenienced and were concerned about their homes,” said C.W. Sigman, the fire coordinator for Kanawha County, who was in the truck with Taylor when one of the tank cars exploded. “But they lived through it.”
Others weren’t so lucky. In July 2013, an oil train derailed after barreling into the town center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The inferno killed 47 people and destroyed the town’s core.
Though West Virginia is one of only a few states that have been unwilling to publicly share information about oil trains passing through the state, they’ve been no mystery to anyone living close to the tracks. And in towns where there isn’t much space between the mountain and the river, most residents have seen them.
“You can follow the railroad track,” said Kent Carper, a commissioner in Kanawha County, which includes Pratt, Handley and part of Montgomery. “You don’t have to guess where it came from or where it’s going.”
Four days after the derailment, life had begun to get back to normal in the valley. The heavy snows of earlier in the week had stopped, and daytime temperatures that had hovered in the teens and single digits all week finally rose into the 20s.
Local water supplies had been disrupted over concerns that oil had contaminated the river. Ultimately, none was detected. More than 100 residents from Adena Village and Mount Carbon who were evacuated to nearby hotels since Monday were finally allowed back to their homes on Friday, as workers pumped the oil out of the damaged cars at the site.
The small fires that smoldered for days finally burned out, and one lane of a two-lane highway damaged in the derailment reopened to traffic. Five homeowners near the derailment site were still being kept away during the cleanup and investigation.
Until the CSX tracks are repaired, no coal, oil or anything else will move by rail on that side of the river. On the opposite bank, though, Norfolk Southern trains kept running, their horns echoing throughout the deep valley.
In coal country, coal trains are a common sight, as are coal trucks. Coal loading and processing facilities line the region’s highways.
“We’re pretty used to the trains around here,” Simile said. “When you live by something for so long, you don’t hear it anymore.”
But Simile has been asking CSX when the tank cars near her house will be moved.
“Nobody has made any promises,” she said.
In response to questions about the tank cars, CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay said that though unoccupied, the train is secure. She said the incident command center approved their removal from the derailment site and that none of them had derailed.
Seay said that the tank cars would remain in place until the Federal Railroad Administration released them.
Back in Washington, U.S. senators called Friday for the White House Office of Management and Budget to speed up its review of new regulations intended to improve oil train safety. The rules, which are expected to include a more robust tank car design, are not scheduled for publication until May.
The tank cars that failed in Monday’s derailment in West Virginia and one day before in a derailment in northern Ontario were built to a higher standard that the industry adopted in October 2011.
“We must enact new, stronger standards for these tank cars that carry dangerous materials through our communities,” wrote Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats. “The sooner these standards are in place, the sooner manufacturers can bring safer tank cars to market.”