Three trains in one weekend.

In Northern Ontario late Saturday night, 29 cars of a CN Rail freight train carrying diluted bitumen (tar sands oil) derailed and seven cars caught fire. The fire was still burning on Monday, and response crews worked overnight in below freezing temperatures to attempt to contain the damage.

On Saturday in Alberta, 12 cars of a CP Rail train carrying crude derailed. Thankfully, the cars did not catch fire.

And in West Virginia, a CSX train carrying crude oil derailed at 1:30 pm on Monday, causing a massive fire that was still shooting flames 50 feet in the air almost 24 hours later. The explosion destroyed a home and caused over 1,000 residents to be evacuated in the middle of one of the worst winter storms that area has seen in over a decade.

The West Virginia derailment endangered the water supply in multiple communities, and residents were told to shut off their water intakes.

In the photos and video footage, flames from the thousands of gallons of burning oil tower over the landscape and dwarf nearby homes.

Oil-by-rail in North America has increased 4,000 percent over the last five years. In the Northwest, we face increasing traffic through busy communities. Oil companies have also resisted disclosing when and where trains will be passing. We’ve heard firefighters and response crews testify that they aren’t equipped to handle the kind of disaster that results from a derailment, and workers at refineries throughout the country are currently on strike, protesting unsafe working conditions.

This story is exactly as simple as it seems. Increased oil transportation is not safe for anyone – the towns near rail lines that are often left to pay the bills when anything goes wrong, as in the case of the Lac-Mégantic explosion, the response crews who are the first on the scene and face tremendous danger, often with few resources, the rail workers and refinery workers that are exposed to massive risk in their everyday duties.

We’ve grown used to oil being cheap and available. But we’ve crossed a tipping point where enough alternatives exist that our reliance on oil is just resistance to change. It no longer makes any kind of sense to anyone who doesn’t massively profit from the business. And that’s most of us. Around Puget Sound, where many of our rail lines travel feet from the shoreline and equally close to homes, businesses, and downtowns, it makes the least kind of sense.

Our thoughts are with those affected by these disasters.

Sign Columbia Riverkeeper’s petition for the governors of Washington and Oregon to stand up and oppose new oil trains in the Northwest.



Since the weekend, we’ve gathered additional information regarding both the Ontario and West Virginia incidents.

Both trains were hauling the newer model CPC 1232 cars, which are designed to prevent fires and spills in case of an incident. Many trains still pull the older DOT-111 cars, which are not as resilient.

The Ontario train was carrying diluted bitumen, which is oil extracted from tar sands. Prior to this accident, it was unclear whether bitumen would catch fire if spilled – it’s now clear that this oil is just as dangerous as Bakken crude, which is known to be extremely volatile.

And to add to the tally of oil-related incidents, a powerful explosion at a Tesoro refinery in California Wednesday morning shook the ground and caused ash to rain down on nearby homes and people.

The Waterkeeper Alliance and other organizations are calling for immediate action to protect communities near oil transport facilities. 


Photo: Lac-Mégantic explosion. Copyright Paul Chiasson.