Getting to the bottom of the train accident that almost blew up Verona

The Top Story by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

Ed Keenan once came within a few inches of blowing up half of Augusta County. He’s spent the past couple of years trying to figure out why.

“When the train started out that day, the licensed engineer didn’t know he was supposed to be supervising me, I didn’t know there was a car unloading propane at Dixie, and the conductor had been told by the operations manager, ‘The car is going to move from here to here, but I don’t want to know how it got there,’ ” said Keenan, a Churchville resident and former engineer trainee for the Shenandoah Valley Railroad who was involved in a minor train accident on Dec. 18, 2006, in the vicinity of U.S. 11 and the Augusta County Government Center in Verona.

Keenan was at the time at the helm of an engine that was part of an operation involving switching activities that he said were done in close proximity to another tank car that was offloading propane into a storage tank at Dixie Gas and Oil. In the process, “We hit the car that was offloading and stretched the hose almost, but not quite, to the breaking point. And so, by an ‘almost,’ we are alive today – along with a good many others,” Keenan told The Augusta Free Press.

But we’re just getting to the meat of this story. While he wasn’t formally fired as a result of his role in the incident, Keenan was effectively let go from his position with the railroad, he said. He’d had concerns from the outset at what he had been asked to do on the tracks that day and tried to raise them to the Federal Railroad Administration. He was eventually told that a formal complaint would have to be filed before the FRA could assign an investigator to look into the matter, and he was advised to contact his congressman to try to initiate that particular process.

And so it was that Keenan wrote a letter to Sixth District Congressman Bob Goodlatte in May 2007 to ask for the congressman’s assistance. He said he received a call from Goodlatte’s office a few days later and was told that because Dixie Gas and Oil is a “constituent,” the congressman would not intervene in the case. Keenan said he wondered what was meant when he was told that Dixie Gas and Oil is a “constituent,” but he left that question alone and moved up the chain and later was able to get in touch with the office of U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, who agreed to offer his assistance and forwarded Keenan’s request to the FRA.

The FRA is currently processing three recommendations for penalty action in regard to the incident against the railroad and five recommendations for penalty action against Dixie Gas and Oil, according to Joseph Boardman, the administrator at the FRA. Boardman also indicated that the Federal Railroad Administration had made several recommendations to the railroad and to Dixie regarding corrective actions that could be taken to prevent these kinds of accidents from happening in the future, and according to officials at Dixie and at the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad, which manages freight operations for the Shenandoah Valley Railroad, those suggestions have been put into practice at both.

“The potential for a catastrophic incident at Dixie Gas was not lost on anyone at the DGVR, and we are committed to improve our company safety standards so that similar incidents can not happen again,” Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad operations superintendent Matthew J. Reese wrote in a memo dated April 20, 2007, regarding the incident.

“We have been safely unloading railcars here in Verona since 1950. The incident in question occured during the railroad’s normal operations. It was fully investigated by our company, the DGVR, the SVRR and the FRA. We have instituted additional safety measures to insure that this type of incident does not happen again. Please understand that our number one priority is to see that our products are transported and used safely,” Dixie Gas and Oil president Chris Earhart wrote in an e-mail to the AFP in response to an inquiry about the Dec. 18, 2006, incident.

So Dixie Gas and Oil and the railroads have acknowleged the issues from the incident and have taken steps to correct things. The Federal Railroad Administration is making glacial progress in possible penalty actions against the responsible parties. The one question lingering for Keenan is the response of Congressman Goodlatte’s office, which he basically sees as a nonresponse. Keenan did some research on the Internet and found that Dixie Gas and Oil’s Earhart is listed as a contributor to the congressman’s political campaigns, as is Cargill, a stockholder in the Shenandoah Valley Railroad.

“It makes one wonder. I did, after all, send the very same letter to Sen. Webb, and I do not find either Cargill or Dixie listed among his contributors. Yet the senator chose to act, and the congressman did not,” Keenan said.

I addressed this issue to the congressman through his press secretary, Kathryn Rexrode.

“While my staff is advised that we do not normally get involved in civil legal disputes between constituents, that was not the case in this situation,” Goodlatte responded by e-mail through Rexrode.

“In this instance, Mr. Keenan should have been assisted in bringing his complaint involving a public-safety issue to the attention of the appropriate federal regulatory agency. Unfortunately this matter was not brought to my attention, and I regret that assistance was not provided,” Goodlatte said.

At least there’s something that Keenan can identify with at the end of this story.

“I’d like to sit down and have a beer with the congressman’s staff. When this business with the train happened, my boss blamed his mistakes on me, too,” Keenan said.

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