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Ala. derailment may reignite crude safety issues

Keywords: Tags  Alabama derailment, Genesee & Wyoming, GWI, train derailment, crude by rail, Don Hartley, Alabama Emergency Management Agency, TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline

NEW YORK — A 90-car Genesee & Wyoming Inc. (GWI) train carrying crude oil to Walnut Hill, Fla., from Amory, Miss., derailed Nov. 8 near Aliceville, Ala., possibly posing further questions about rail’s ability to safely transport crude oil.

"I have 11 counties that I’m in charge of, and there’s been nothing like this," Alabama Emergency Management Agency regional coordinator Don Hartley told AMM.

Hartley noted that 20 of 26 derailed cars caught fire, although GWI said in updates on its website Nov. 8 that 11 cars were burning.

A spokesman for the Darien, Conn.-based company declined further comment.

No injuries were reported and there was only a brief evacuation of a neighboring house, with any immediate danger having since subsided.

"All the fires are out. This has gone from a response operation to a recovery operation, recovering the rail cars and repairing the line," Hartley said.

The amount of crude oil spilled and the cause of the accident have yet to be determined, but the latter finding could set the stage for further examination of rail’s ability to safely carry crude.

"It really depends on what the investigation shows the cause of the accident to be. We won’t know for sure until the recovery process is complete. There are still a number of cars that are in the marsh there," Hartley said.

The latest derailment comes after a July 6 incident near Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in which a runaway train hauling crude oil tank cars caught fire, leveled a town and killed 47 people (, July 8). This led the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration to hold an emergency meeting to begin considering additional regulatory or other safety measures (, Sept. 3).

Energy companies such as Calgary, Alberta-based TransCanada Corp., which is seeking approval of its proposed Keystone XL pipeline to Nebraska from Alberta, have in the past claimed that carrying crude via train is less safe and environmentally friendly than via pipeline (, March 15).

Crude oil transport via rail has been growing in the absence of pipelines from areas such as the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, with the Association of American Railroads (AAR) estimating that 97,135 carloads of crude were carried by train in the first quarter of 2013, more than double the 36,544 carloads in the first quarter of 2012, according to a report.

AAR claimed in the report that transporting crude via rail is safer than in pipelines, with the crude oil "spill rate" for railroads from 2002 to 2012 estimated at 2.2 gallons per million ton-miles, compared with 6.3 gallons per million ton-miles for pipelines.

However, traffic was comparatively low for crude by rail in most of those examined years, AAR data also shows.

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