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Crashed Train Carried 'Keystone Pipeline' Style Crude Oil

Some of the heavy Canadian oil that would travel via the controversial pipeline is shipping by rail instead.

Federal investigators say a freight train that crashed outside Pittsburgh last week and spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil was carrying heavy Canadian crude, marking the first U.S. rail spill of the controversial oil at the center of the Keystone pipeline debate.

A 120-car Norfolk Southern train derailed on a curve in Vandergrift, Pa., at 8 a.m. Feb. 13 and crashed into a building. Twenty-one cars left the track and spilled from 3,500 to 12,000 gallons of the tar-like crude. About 75 percent of the spill has been cleaned up, and none entered the local water supply. No injuries were reported.

Oil production has surged in recent years in both North Dakota’s Bakken region and the tar sands of Canada. Trains have become key to moving crude out of North Dakota, but a number of explosive accidents, including one that killed 47 in Quebec, have sparked calls for overhaul of the little-regulated “crude by rail.”

The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would move the Canadian tar-sand oil from Canada through the U.S. Plains states to the Gulf of Mexico. But the pipeline, which is opposed by environmentalists, has been delayed, and on Wednesday a Nebraska judge struck down a law that would have sped up pipeline construction in that state.

Without sufficient pipeline capacity, some of the heavy crude has begun to move by rail, and regulators from the Federal Railroad Administration confirmed Thursday that the oil that spilled in Vandergrift on Feb. 13 was carbon-heavy tar-sand crude from Canada.

Canadian oil, which is much denser than Bakken crude, rarely explodes but poses other risks, particularly because it sinks in water. A 2010 pipeline breach along Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that leaked more than 1 million gallons of Canadian crude has cost more than $1 billion so far to clean up.

“You can’t just start running trains of tar sands all over the place without doing the work to make sure we’re ready for that,” said Eddie Scher, spokesman for the Sierra Club. “And we certainly haven’t done that.”

Rail and oil industry representatives have been meeting with regulators in efforts to come up with better policies to mitigate accidents and improve emergency response.

“Safety is always our top priority,” said American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard in a statement.