Fires were still burning more than a day after an oil train carrying more than 3 million gallons of crude derailed in a snowstorm, shooting fireballs into the sky and leaking oil into a West Virginia waterway.
Hundreds of families were evacuated and two water treatment plants were temporarily shut down after 19 of the tanker cars left the tracks and caught fire, burning a nearby house down to its foundation.
“There's nothing there,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who toured the scene alongside a Kanawha River tributary. “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 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, walked away unharmed.
“It was a little scary. It was like an atomic bomb went off,” said David McClung, who felt the heat at his home about a half-mile uphill. He said one of the explosions sent a fireball at least 300 feet into the air.
Fire crews had little choice Tuesday but to let the tanks burn themselves out. Each carries up to 30,000 gallons of crude.
The train was carrying volatile Bakken crude from North Dakota's shale fields to an oil shipping depot in Yorktown, Virginia. It used model 1232 tank cars, which include safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration confirmed.
A series of ruptures and fires in recent derailments involving model 1232s has the National Transportation Safety Board questioning their safety as well, and the Department of Transportation has drafted new standards being reviewed by the White House budget office. Just last year, a similar accident happened along the same route in Lynchburg, Virginia.
The cause of Monday's accident, which happened about 1:20 p.m. about 30 miles southeast of Charleston, was not immediately known. Snow was falling heavily at the time — as much as 7 inches in some places Monday — but it's not clear if the weather was a factor.
All but two of the 109 cars were tankers, and 26 of them left the tracks, the governor's spokesman Chris Stadelman said. The two locomotives stayed on the track, as the front of the train began derailing, a CSX spokesman said.
Some of the tanks were still on fire Tuesday afternoon, but federal investigators were allowed to get closer as the day wore on, and Appalachian Power crews were allowed to repair a line providing electricity to about 900 customers.
With no water or power, about 85 displaced residents had gone to shelters set up by CSX and the American Red Cross, Messina said.
The West Virginia National Guard was taking water samples to determine whether the oil that spilled into Armstrong Creek reached the Kanawha River, which supplies drinking water to thousands of West Virginians. So far, “we haven't been able to determine how much, if any, crude oil made it into the river,” state Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said.
With drinking water cut off, West Virginia University Tech in nearby Montgomery cancelled this week's classes. But three rounds of testing showed no crude oil at the intake for the Montgomery plant, which was being restarted Tuesday afternoon. Affected customers were being advised to boil their water for several days until full service is restored.
CSX contractors also were monitoring the air for pollution linked to the fires, and federal railroad and hazardous materials officials were probing the accident, which prompted Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to declare a state of emergency.
The U.S. Transportation Department has advocated tougher safety regulations for rail shipments of crude after a series of fiery train wrecks. If approved, the rules would phase out tens of thousands of the older tank cars being used to carry highly flammable liquids along waterways and through towns.