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Across the state on the same rail line where a train loaded with highly combustible crude oil derailed, a fire chief sees the potential for a nightmare scenario: A blaze his crews don't have the means to put out, threatening a colonial-era tourist attraction and one of the nation's oldest institutions of higher learning.
No one was hurt or killed when a train derailed in Lynchburg, but emergency officials say it underscores the fact that many departments don't have the resources to deal with such an accident along a busy route for hauling oil from the booming Bakken oil fields in the northern U.S. tier and Canada.
"It definitely raises concerns," said Williamsburg Fire Chief William Dent. "We have some minimal resources here."
The worst-case scenario for his department, Dent said, would be an oil-train derailment on a stretch of CSX track passing between the College of William & Mary and the popular Williamsburg historic area. Some buildings on both sides would have to be evacuated, and the department would have to call on neighboring localities for help responding to the disaster.
Lynchburg officials evacuated some buildings and let the fire burn out, but Richmond Fire Chief Robert Creecy said a more aggressive response would be required if an oil train plunged from the elevated CSX track dissecting Virginia's capital. The track spans Interstate 95 and, like the stretch in Lynchburg, grazes the edge of James River.
Fred Millar, a consultant to localities and others on the rail transport of chemicals, said the possibility of an oil train plunging from Richmond's elevated tracks was raised during a recent safety forum in Washington.
"Someone said it would be like a 747 crashing into your city," Millar said.
Richard Edinger, assistant fire chief in the Richmond suburb of Chesterfield County, said no fire department except those at some refineries has sufficient equipment and materials to deal with exploding oil-filled tank cars.
Edinger, who also serves as vice chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Hazardous Materials Committee, said emergency responders have long been aware of the threat posed by the transport of crude oil.
"What's new to this picture is the scale, the amount of product coming through," he said. "That's the game changer."
Fire chiefs said firefighters receive training on responding to oil tanker fires — Williamsburg just conducted an exercise based on a simulated derailment of Bakken crude March 27, Dent said — but it hasn't received any special emphasis.
"These are low-frequency, high-consequence incidents," Edinger said. "When looking at all you need to purchase and train on, this is one of them but it doesn't always make the highest priority."
Across the country in Contra Costa County, California, officials demanded that an oil company chip in on preparedness when it proposed building a facility to offload Bakken crude shipped in by rail. Fire Marshal Robert Marshall said the company was told "we do not have the kind of equipment for that kind of risk."
The county, which is near Oakland, asked the company for a fire truck with larger-capacity pump than would be required for a normal structure fire. The truck will be able to pump firefighting foam as well as water, Marshall said.
He said the area regularly gets high wind, so a fire from a Bakken oil train "would cause a significant problem for us."
The Lynchburg derailment, the latest in a string of oil-train wrecks, has brought renewed demands that the Obama administration quickly tighten regulations governing the burgeoning practice of transporting highly combustible crude by rail. Some experts say stronger rules to head off a catastrophe are long overdue.
In the latest crash, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed Wednesday in downtown Lynchburg, sending three tanker cars into the James River and shooting flames and black smoke into the air. No one was injured.
There have been eight other significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude, and some of them caused considerable damage and deaths, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Bakken crude ignites more easily than other types.
The NTSB is investigating the cause of the Lynchburg incident. CSX said it is cooperating fully.
On Thursday, crews used cranes and other heavy equipment to remove cars. Nearly all of the train's cars were carrying crude, and each had a capacity of 30,000 gallons, officials said.
"This could have been a whole lot worse," Mayor Michael A. Gillette said, adding that local officials have virtually no say over railroad operations. "We rely on state and federal government to do the work that needs to be done that our citizens are safe."
Lorrie Saunders looked at the wreckage and said: "It was a miracle it didn't set the whole town of Lynchburg on fire."
On Thursday, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 gallons of oil had escaped, said spokeswoman Dawn Eischen. It wasn't clear how much burned off and how much entered the river. The figure was much lower than an estimate given by city officials the previous day.
City spokeswoman JoAnn Martin said there was no effect on the water supply for Lynchburg's 77,000 residents because the city draws from the river only during droughts.
O'Dell reported from Richmond. Associated Press Writer Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.