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Tests showed rail defect 2 months before W.Va. oil train derailed

Scorched and deformed tank cars await examination by federal investigators at Handley, W.Va., on Feb. 24, 2015. A CSX train carrying crude oil had derailed a week earlier, spilling nearly 400,000 gallons and igniting a fire that kept 100 people from their homes for four days.
Scorched and deformed tank cars await examination by federal investigators at Handley, W.Va., on Feb. 24, 2015. A CSX train carrying crude oil had derailed a week earlier, spilling nearly 400,000 gallons and igniting a fire that kept 100 people from their homes for four days. McClatchy

Two separate tests in the two months prior to a fiery oil train derailment in West Virginia earlier this year showed the presence of a rail defect, according to a report on the incident.

But neither the railroad nor the contractor who did the tests followed up on the results in December 2014 and January 2015, and the rail broke under a 107-car CSX train loaded with Bakken crude oil. The Feb. 16 derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va., led to explosions, fires and the evacuation of 1,100 nearby residents.

On Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration said it had issued $25,000 civil penalties against both CSX and Sperry Rail Service, the contractor that performed the rail tests.

All railroads, not just CSX, must be more diligent when inspecting for internal rail flaws or when contracting out inspection work.

Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration

The railroad agency recommended that both companies enhance employee training and use improved technology. It also asked CSX to establish a plan to identify and correct track defects on routes used to ship crude oil.

Noting that track flaws are a leading cause of derailments, Sarah Feinberg, the agency’s acting administrator, said railroads hauling hazardous materials need to pay closer attention to track conditions.

“All railroads, not just CSX, must be more diligent when inspecting for internal rail flaws or when contracting out inspection work,” she said in a statement.

In a statement, CSX said it would develop additional inspection processes in collaboration with federal regulators.

“CSX intends to pursue these efforts to their maximum potential as part of our commitment to the safety of the communities where we operate, our employees and our customers,” said Kaitlyn Barrett, a spokeswoman.

According to the agency’s report, 24 of the 27 derailed tank cars sustained significant damage that released oil, fueling fires and explosions even in single-digit temperatures. One resident’s home was destroyed by fire, but no one was seriously injured or killed.

The Mount Carbon wreck was among six oil train derailments in North America this year and one of four in the U.S. All revealed vulnerabilities in the kinds of tank cars used to transport oil, as well as shortcomings in the inspection and maintenance of track and rail car wheels.

In April, the Federal Railroad Administration recommended improved wheel inspections. A broken wheel was suspected in the March 6 oil train derailment near Galena, Ill., though the agency has yet to announce an official cause.

In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced its final rule requiring more crash and fire resistance for tank cars used to transport flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol.

The recent push for improved track and tank cars in North America followed the July 2013 oil train disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died. On Friday, a U.S. bankruptcy judge approved a $343 million settlement with the families of the victims.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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