LYNCHBURG, Va. — As Pat Calvert steers a small motorboat over the James River, it’s impossible not to notice the smell of motor oil, and it’s not coming from the boat.
Two days after a CSX train derailed and put three tank cars full of crude oil into the river, Calvert, who keeps tabs on the Upper James River for the James River Association, is only beginning to survey the spill’s impact. Wednesday’s derailment spared the town from catastrophe, but not the river.
Much of the spilled crude burned in a spectacular fire on Wednesday, and the river, flooded from recent rains, washed the rest downstream toward Virginia’s capital, Richmond, and the Chesapeake Bay.
Floating orange barriers called boom had been placed in the water surrounding the derailment site to capture spilled oil, but it might have been too late to make a difference. Calvert said his organization had measured an oil slick 17 miles long.
Closer to the shoreline, a sticky black film coats low-hanging tree leaves. The river is home to bald eagle nests, and smaller birds scavenge for insects along its banks.
“I’ve been trying to shoo them,” Calvert said. “I wish they would go somewhere else to eat.”
Wednesday’s accident highlights a growing anxiety among river conservationists across the country about a rising volume of crude oil shipments in tank cars long known to be vulnerable in derailments.
The nation’s primary rail routes were constructed along waterways because of the favorable grades for heavy trains. Those characteristics make them well-suited for transporting entire trains of crude oil, because it takes fewer locomotives and less fuel.
The James River in Virginia, the Hudson River in New York and the Columbia River, which serves as the border between Washington and Oregon, are all along the path of regular rail shipments of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region, where the oil is unlocked by hydraulic fracturing.
While helping drive a historic shift away from imported oil, the shipments are also bringing new spill risks to states and communities that aren’t prepared for them.
The trains along the James River, bound for a rail-to-barge terminal in Yorktown, Va., had barely gained notice since they began operating in December. But along the Hudson and Columbia rivers, resistance has been building to similar operations.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental and clean water watchdog group, has been concerned as state and local governments have signed off on several rail terminals, all served by a rail line that follows the river and its tributaries.
“The sight of those flaming cars in the river in Lynchburg really struck home,” he said. “It might be in our future.”
Even the relatively small amount of oil that spilled Wednesday — less than 30,000 gallons, according to revised state estimates — can have a long-lasting impact on waterways and the people and wildlife that depend on them, VandenHeuvel said.
The James River supplies Virginia cities, including Lynchburg and Richmond, with drinking water. The Columbia River is prime fishing ground for Native Americans and irrigates the fertile but arid farmland of central Washington and Oregon.
Along the Hudson, trainloads of crude oil are transferred to barges within blocks of state government offices in Albany, New York’s capital.
“The crossroads for a lot of this oil is Albany,” said Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River program director for Riverkeeper. “These trains are right in the middle of downtown.”
After the derailment in Lynchburg, the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a package of tougher proposed standards for tank cars to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. But that process could take months.
“That’s simply not good enough when you have this kind of risk,” Musegaas said.
He called on Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to immediately ban puncture-prone tank cars from transporting Bakken crude oil. Last week, the Canadian government ordered a three-year phaseout of the cars, called DOT-111s, from crude oil shipping.
These cars are the same type that punctured and ruptured on trains carrying crude oil that derailed in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick in the past year. All of the derailments resulted in large fires and spills. In Lac-Megantic, Quebec, 47 people were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Lynchburg derailment, said Friday that 14 of the 17 cars that derailed were built to a higher standard voluntarily adopted by the industry in 2011. The NTSB and the railroad industry have said that even these cars are not robust enough for crude oil.
Though the federal government regulates rail transportation, state and local governments have some power to check the expansion of crude oil shipments by rail facilities, which often require permits to begin operating.
Albany County, N.Y., last month placed a moratorium on the growth of such facilities until a study of their health impacts is completed.
VandenHeuvel’s group is calling on the governors of Oregon and Washington to make a similar move. Several crude-by-rail terminals are planned in the Pacific Northwest in addition to the ones already in operation. Others are planned in Northern California.
VandenHeuvel said that officials should take a hard look at what happened in Lynchburg and other towns before allowing any more terminals to go forward.
“I think we’re beyond calling for investigations,” he said. “Prevention is a much better approach.”