KCBD INVESTIGATES: Danger on the Rails, what hazardous chemicals are coming through your area?

Updated: Apr. 12, 2016 at 1:03 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK COUNTY, TX (KCBD) - In 2013, a small village in Quebec faced utter destruction after a train carrying tankers full of crude oil derailed, killing 47 people.

"What they described was rivers of fire moving through their community - these were the survivors," said Fred Millar, an independent consultant on rail safety. Millar has worked with several cities, counties and railroad unions.

Now, federal investigators are saying slower speeds and safer rail cars are needed to stem the rise of those explosive crude oil car accidents.

A train hauling crude oil derailed and exploded in West Virginia; oil from the CSX train spilled into the river, a source of drinking water for two counties.

"We have a potential here for mass casualties, with a giant fire event," Millar said.

We caught up with Millar 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," Millar said.

Raycom Media just fought to gain access to how many trains are coming down the tracks in communities across the country, but that information will soon be in the dark again.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reversed course and declared those details about crude oil rail shipments are exempt from public disclosure.

According to documents obtained by KCBD, The Texas Department of Public Safety reports that at least one million gallons of Bakken crude oil travels through this state weekly.

"Any city that has a major rail line, like Dallas, Texas, has to worry about that they're going to be a potential route for an enormously risky transcontinental shipment of very ultra-hazardous cargo," Millar said.

Ultra-hazardous cargo like argon gas, that was released when a train crashed into an 18-wheeler that was stuck on the tracks in Louisiana.

And a little closer to home, families near Waco were evacuated after cars carrying methanol derailed

And then just last month in East Texas, Longview residents sought shelter after cars carrying liquid petroleum gas tumbled off of the tracks.

Attorney Kevin Glasheen has worked nearly a dozen train wreck cases, including the one out of Midland where four veterans died in a parade after a train crashed into their float.

"The railroads really dominate congress. For example, cities used to be able to regulate train speed limits. Well, the railroad industry lobbied congress and took away authority from states and municipalities. So, at some point the regulatory environment really needs to answer to the citizens and not just to industry," Glasheen said.

But Glasheen's concerns do not stop there.

"The regulatory environment is weak," he said.

"The railroads are essentially responsible for their own maintenance and this is not where they make their money by doing maintenance so you can't really expect them to police themselves up to the level that we would expect to keep the tracks safe," Glasheen said.

A record 52 percent of crude was delivered over the rails to east coast refineries in February.

All major freight railroads are moving this oil.

"Our number one concern is delivering every shipment of freight we move safely to its intended destination whether its crude oil or anything else," said Rob Doolittle, Director of Communications and Media Relations for CSX.

CSX has a footprint across the northeast. Doolittle said despite the boom, its bigger business remains the movement of cars and manufactured goods. Crude oil makes up two percent of all its shipments.

"We understand community 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," Doolittle said.

Federal regulators say trains traveling through high risk urban areas must now drop their speed to 40 mph.

The rail companies must add new brakes and oil must be shipped in newer, stronger tanker cars, but everyone still has several years to make those expensive changes.

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