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Oil tanker train derails, catches fire; area is evacuated

Several CSX tanker cars carrying oil caught fire when a train derailed in Lynchburg, Va.

LuAnn Hunt/City of Lynchburg/associated press

Several CSX tanker cars carrying oil caught fire when a train derailed in Lynchburg, Va.

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Several CSX train cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire Wednesday along the James River in Lynchburg, Va., with three black tankers ending up in the water and leaking some contents, becoming the most recent crash involving oil trains that has safety experts pushing for better oversight.

Nearby buildings were evacuated for a time, but officials said there were no injuries and the city said on its website and Twitter that firefighters decided to let the fire burn out.

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Three or four tankers were breached on the 15-car train that CSX said was traveling from Chicago to an unspecified destination. Most of the cars were knocked off the tracks.

Online photos and videos showed large flames and thick, black smoke after the crash. But in later photos it appeared that the fire was mostly out.

Nicole Gibs, 32, a server at the Depot Grille, across the street, said she was waiting on a table when she heard a train that sounded louder than usual. She saw several train cars wobbling, and then one fell over, sparking a fire. Several other cars also toppled ‘‘like Tyco trains,’’ she said.

The manager yelled: ‘‘Evacuate!’’ and the restaurant immediately began emptying, with some people in wheelchairs being carried down steps as the fire raged, filling the air with black smoke.

The people from the restaurant moved a block away, then two.

‘‘You could feel the heat like you were standing by a campfire,’’ Gibs said. ‘‘It was hot.’’

Concern about the safety of oil trains was heightened last July when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated.

Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3 million gallons of light, sweet Bakken crude released in Lac-Megantic was comparable to gasoline.

‘‘This is another national wake-up call,’’ Jim Hall, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman, said of the Lynchburg crash. ‘‘We have these oil trains moving all across the United States through communities and the growth and distribution of this has all occurred, unfortunately, while the federal regulators have been asleep.’’

‘‘This is just an area in which the federal rulemaking process is too slow to protect the American people,’’ he said.

There have been eight significant oil train accidents in the United States and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in spectacular fires, according to the safety board.

There was no immediate indication about how much crude leaked into the James River.

But city spokeswoman JoAnn Martin said there was no impact to the water supply for Lynchburg’s 77,000 residents because it only sources from the James in times of drought.

Still, drinking water was the first concern for Lynchburg resident Mark Lindy, a network engineer who came with his son, Zach, to look at the accident scene.

Lindy said he planned to buy a week’s worth of water for his family just to be safe.

‘‘I’m not drinking tap water, that’s for sure,’’ he said.

Booms were set up and appeared to contain the spill, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said.

The agency said it will oversee the oil cleanup and assess the river for any environmental impact.

CSX said it is ‘‘responding fully, with emergency response personnel, safety and environmental experts, community support teams and other resources.’’

Martin said CSX cleanup crews were expected to be on the scene by midnight and anticipate being done by close of business Thursday.

The NTSB said it is sending investigators, as is the Federal Railroad Administration.

Grady Cothen, a former Federal Railroad Administration official, speculated that given the recent wet weather in Virginia and the accident’s location near a river, it is possible that soft subsoil may have weakened the track.

Railroads ‘‘try to catch that before it gets out of hand,’’ but aren’t always successful, he said.

As for oil train safety problems, in one of her last acts before leaving office last week, outgoing National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman warned the Obama administration that it needs to take immediate steps to protect Americans from potentially catastrophic accidents even if it means using emergency authority.

The safety board has long recommended that the Department of Transportation toughen its design standard for the kind of rail tank cars used to transport crude oil and ethanol.

The cars are too easily punctured or ruptured, even in low-speed accidents. The flammable contents are then spilled, fouling the environment and often igniting.

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