Mount Carbon - Oil cars were still burning more than a day after a train carrying 11.3 million liters of North Dakota crude derailed in a snowstorm, shooting fireballs into the sky.
Hundreds of families in West Virginia were evacuated after losing their drinking water and electricity when 19 tank cars slammed into each other and caught fire, leaking oil into a river tributary and burning a nearby house down to its foundation.
"There's nothing there," said Democratic US senator Joe Manchin, who toured the scene. "All you can see is a couple of blocks sticking out of the ground. There's some pickup trucks out front completely burned to the ground."
One person — the homeowner — was treated for smoke inhalation, but no other injuries were reported, according to the train company, CSX. The two-person crew, an engineer and conductor, managed to decouple the train's engines from the wreck behind it and walk away unharmed.
The train derailed near unincorporated Mount Carbon just after passing through Montgomery, a town of 1 946, on a stretch where the rails wind past businesses and homes crowded between the water and the steep, tree-covered hills.
Fire crews had little choice Tuesday but to let the tanks burn themselves out. Each carries up to 113 500 million liters of crude.
These rail shipments jumped from 9 500 carloads in 2008 to more than 435 000 in 2013, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where pipeline limitations force 70% of the crude to move by rail, according to American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.
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The downside: Trains hauling Bakken-region oil have been involved in major accidents in the US and Canada, where 47 people were killed by an explosive derailment in 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
Reports of leaks and other oil releases from tank cars are up as well, from 12 in 2008 to 186 last year, according to Department of Transportation records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Just Saturday, two days before the West Virginia wreck 29 cars of a 100-car Canadian National Railway train carrying diluted bitumen crude derailed in a remote area 80km south of Timmins, Ontario, spilling oil and catching fire. That train was headed from Alberta to Eastern Canada.
The train that derailed on Monday was bound for an oil shipping depot in Yorktown, Virginia along the same route where three tank cars plunged into the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia, prompting an evacuation last year.
All three of these accidents involved model 1232 tank cars, which include safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago. An estimated $7bn has been spent to put 57 000 of these cars into service, according to the Railway Supply Institute.
Now the Obama Administration is considering requiring even more upgrades, such as thicker tanks, shields to prevent tankers from crumpling, rollover protections and electronic brakes that could make cars stop simultaneously, rather than slam into each other.
Some of these measures would cost billions more and have been strongly opposed by the oil and rail industries.