RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - There were five major fireball train derailments this year alone. All of the trains carried highly volatile crude oil. These crude oil trains come right through downtown Richmond and the heart of our viewing area every week.
Utter destruction. 47 people dead. The downtown of a lakeside village in Quebec leveled.
It was all caused by a train carrying tankers full of crude oil. The train derailed and exploded in July 2013. Since that time, tanker cars burst into massive flames in Aliceville AL. 400,000 gallons of crude caused an explosive fire in a derailment near Casselton, ND. And in downtown Lynchburg, 17 tankers derailed. Three emptied crude oil into a major Virginia river, and that fire is from just one exploded tanker car.
The Lynchburg train and a train that derailed in February in West Virginia were both headed straight for downtown Richmond.
The River City was built around the railroads. To this day, trains haul goods through Shockoe Bottom's Tobacco Row on elevated tracks. But every week, giant tankers also come through with one of the most volatile substances: Bakken crude oil.
"We have a potential here for mass casualties with a giant fire event," said Fred Millar, an independent consultant on rail safety who's worked with several cities, counties and railroad unions. We caught up with him in Washington, D.C. next to train tracks that carry crude oil four blocks from the White House.
"This huge load of very dangerous unit trains was put out on the rail lines with no advance notice. No advanced preparation. There's been no warning of people, saying this is going to be coming through your community," said Millar.
Crude oil is highly flammable. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, shipments by trains have increased by 4,000 percent since 2008. American railroads will carry 900,000 car loads of Bakken crude this year. The trains are sometimes more than 100 cars long and are carrying the volatile loads from newly productive oil patches in the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota. That's how Bakken crude gets its name.
The oil is helping to keep gas prices down at the pumps, but does it come at cost?
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 99.95 percent of shipments reach their destinations safely, but several devastating accidents in the last two years now has the railroads under a microscope.
"Rail lines go right through downtowns. They go under the major buildings in Atlanta. They go through elevated tracks through Richmond, Virginia," adds Millar.
First responders across the nations have their own concerns.
"You get something like that in a small town, the wind is blowing your way. You need to be concerned," says Mike Mohler. He's been a firefighter for 38 years. He's also the President of the Virginia Professional Firefighters. He worries about the men and women who will responded to these fireball derailments.
"Our U.S. senators should be concerned. The people in the police and fire department should all be concerned and we need answers from the industry as it relates to that," said Mohler.
CSX is the major crude oil carrier here. This is the route that oil takes through Virginia.
We got a hold of documents and maps shared with emergency responders, by the railroads.
We've learned these tanker cars carry a million or more gallons through the heart of Virginia's capital four to six times a week.
They make their way through every county on this list-- including Henrico, Goochland and New Kent.
"That route in Virginia is possibly the most geographically challenged route in the country," says Fred Millar. He points out that it is very windy and goes over mountains.
But CSX says a lot of thought went into to it.
"The route that the crude oil takes through Richmond is the result of our analysis of 27 different safety related factors that arrive at the safest route for any given shipment for hazardous materials including crude oil," said Rob Doolittle. He's a spokesperson for CSX. He says several first responders in our area got hands on training that was specifically focused on crude oil. He adds that the tracks along the Richmond route are constantly examined.
"They receive visual inspections several times each week. We used sophisticated ultra sound equipment to look for internal defects in the rail and we also use a track geometry car to make sure the tracks are level and appropriately related to one another. Those tracks do get extra attention to make sure that they are safe for the products they are moving," says Doolittle.
He adds, "Our number one concern is delivering every shipment of freight that we move safely to its intended destination, whether it's crude oil or anything else."
All four major freight railroads are moving this oil: CSX, Norfolk Southern, BNSF and Union Pacific.
CSX has a footprint across the northeast.
The company says despite the boom in Oil in the U.S., it's bigger business still remains the movement of cars and manufactured goods. Crude oil makes up 2 percent of all its shipments.
"We understand communities concerns about the nature of the products we are moving. Which is why we invest more than a billion dollars a year in our infrastructure to make sure our tracks are safe to support the transportation of the freight we're involved in," said Doolittle.
Federal regulators says trains traveling through high risk urban areas must now drop their speed to 40 mph.
The rail companies must add new brakes and the oil must be shipped in newer, stronger tanker cars, but everyone still has several years to make those expensive changes.