A huge column of fire shot skyward - then fanned out in all directions at once, becoming a massive fireball that seemed to hover over tiny Mount Carbon, which is just downriver from Boomer, West Virginia, which is officially a “census-designated place” of 813 people.
Suddenly, Monday afternoon’s winter sky glowed a nightmarish fire-bright orange - and well into the night it remained a massive warning flare, visible to folks miles away. Officials ordered hundreds to evacuate their homes. Witnesses told reporters the usual things (“Like an atomic bomb” … “wrath-of-God”).
But massive as it was, the fiery warning flare couldn’t quite be seen by the one not-quite-as-nearby resident who most needed to see it and heed it. He was just 350 miles east of that wintery-inferno, working at his desk in his home-office that has lots of windows but no corners.
It would be a while before he’d get word that a CSX freight train pulling 109 fully loaded oil tank cars (the newest safer-designed type) had derailed and exploded in a snowstorm at about 1:20 p.m. Monday, not so far away in rural West Virginia. Some 25 tank cars had careened in all directions, 20 of them reportedly ablaze. Tank cars tumbled down the Kanawha River’s sloping bank - a potential environmental disaster - and at least one was in the water.
No one died, officials reported. Only one person was injured. Houses were ablaze. Days later experts were not sure how much of the train’s cargo of North Dakota crude had spilled into that proud, wide waterway. But officials had wisely rushed to shut off the intake valves that pumped tomorrow’s drinking water into the nearby treatment plant.
First responders, once again, had rushed to do their jobs. And the feds were on their way, officials from U.S. transportation agencies and also Washington’s Environmental Protective Agency, who had been advising the fellow in the corner-less office about a related matter.
President Obama has a paper on his desk that is very much about potential oil-carrying train wrecks, even though it never mentions that. It is the Keystone Pipeline XL bill, delivered to his desk by the new Republican-controlled Senate and House. Keystone Pipeline XL would construct a pipeline extension that would carry an especially dirty form of crude oil from its tar-sand origins in Canada to U.S. refineries on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Keystone’s advocates - Republicans, a number of Democrats and importantly, many labor unions - emphasize that constructing the pipeline extension will create thousands of jobs. They don’t talk much about the fact that these jobs will last two years, then vanish, creating perhaps a mere 35 to 50 permanent jobs.
Keystone’s opponents, including Obama’s EPA and many environmental activist groups warn about damage from leaks and also climate changing affects from the way the oil is initially captured. But they don’t mention very much a State Department assessment that oil production would likely continue, even if the pipeline isn’t built, with the crude shipped mostly via rail. Without the Keystone XL, the department, said TransCanada Corp. will likely ship oil by rail to Oklahoma to funnel it into an existing pipeline to the Gulf, or via train all the way to the Gulf, or maybe to the Atlantic or Pacific coasts.
No wonder ordinary folks hardly know what to think. They’re being conned left and right.
President Obama has vowed to veto the Keystone Pipeline. But I think vetoing it would be a mistake. Oil transported by rail is just one derailment away from being an environmental disaster of unacceptable proportions.
In the end, I’m persuaded by the experts who say rail shipments pose a far greater danger to the environment than transporting the oil through a state-of-the art pipeline. In 2012, an estimated 40 times more oil was transported by rail than in 2008. And frankly, I’m persuaded most by recent orange-sky warning flare events:
July 2013: A railroad tank car exploded in Quebec, killing 47 people.
Dec. 2013: A derailment in North Dakota spilled 475,000 gallons of oil.
Feb. 2014: A derailment near Pittsburgh spilled 4,000 gallons of oil - it was the 10th derailment in North America in a year, according to Bloomberg News.
This week’s fearsome fireball over Mount Carbon, just downriver from Boomer, should both warn and enlighten us all to an oil transport truth that’s hard to refute … and harder to ignore.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.