The train was traveling from Chicago to Virginia when approximately 15 rail cars derailed at 2:30 p.m. eastern time, CSX officials said.
Three tanker cars breached, and fell into the James River. One was full, one was empty, and one was one-third full, reports CBS affiliate WDBJ. Approximately 50,000 gallons of crude oil are unaccounted for, according to a spokeswoman for the City of Lynchburg.
It's not clear how much oil burned off or how much of it spilled into the river.
CSX confirmed the train "originated in the Bakken shale region in North Dakota and was handed off to CSX at Chicago en route to Yorktown, Va."
The CSX railroad began shipping crude oil from the Bakken shale formation, located in North Dakota, through Virginia in December 2013, according to online reports.
That's the same crude oil that's been implicated in derailments and major explosions from Alabama to Quebec, where a July 2013 derailment and fire killed 47 people in a small town.
An oil boom in North Dakota and Canada has led to a fourfold increase in the amount of crude shipped by rail since 2005, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
In March, environmentalists warned against having trains hauling oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale pass through downtown Lynchburg en route to a storage depot in Yorktown.
Glen Besa, director of Virginia's Sierra Club chapter, said Wednesday's accident only heightens safety concerns. His group raised concerns over a month ago before any accident.
“These trains are travelling through Lynchburg along the James River through Richmond and onto the York County facility on the York River," said Besa, back in March. "We’re concerned that a train derailment could result in an explosion and the loss of life or an oil spill that could jeopardize our drinking water supplies and the environment."
On Wednesday Besa asked what would have happened if the derailment had occurred in Shockoe Bottom and pointed to the number of recent incidents.
"If a particular airliner crashed or had serious failures 5 times in ten months, it would be ground by the National Transportation Safety Board," Besa said."In this case it is the shipment of Bakken crude oil by rail, not planes, but why don't the same rules apply?"
In early January, a month after CSX began moving this crude oil through Virginia, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) notified the general public, emergency responders and shippers and carriers that recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.
That warning came three years after PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration began focusing on the safe transport of crude oil produced in the Bakken Shale region of the United States, according to the government agency's website.
The federal agency is considering tougher rules, but said they won't be finished before January 2015.
Reuters recently published a report, citing CSX Chief Executive Michael Ward, that tougher safety regulations for tank railcars that haul crude could be costly but not put a dent in their oil hauling business.
The expense of retrofitting older railcars, "while large, won't impact our ability to move this crude by rail," Ward said to Reuters.
Some of the cars on the train were of a model that the NTSB has said has a high incidence of leaking during crashes National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jim Southworth told reporters. But Southworth said investigators don't know whether any of the cars that derailed Wednesday were among them.
The Association of American Railroads estimates that more than 90,000 of those cars are used to carry hazardous materials. About 14,000 of them have been built to the latest safety standards, the association says.
William Hayden, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said it was "too soon to say" what the environmental impact of Wednesday's accident would be.
The spill was contained before it stretched more than a quarter of a mile downriver, he said, but it wasn't clear Wednesday evening how much oil had spilled into the James.
"We have people on the scene providing technical assistance to make sure the leak is contained properly," Hayden said.
"CSX is responding fully, with emergency response personnel, safety and environmental experts, community support teams and other resources on site and on the way," it said. "We are committed to fully supporting the emergency responders and other agencies, meeting the needs of the community and protecting the environment."
The oil is expected to arrive in the area either Wednesday night or Thursday morning, said Bob Steidel with Department of Public Utilities, at a press conference. He noted that the river’s current high, and fast moving, conditions will move the oil through faster.
Richmond will consider using an alternate water source due to the train derailment, Steidel said, if needed. They will continue to monitor the situation and test the water.
Henrico is not switching from the James River, said William Mawyer, Assistant Director for Henrico Public Utilities. He said that intakes are well below the surface of where crude oil resides. He said that they would inform residents of any changes to the water supply, and are taking precautionary measures by filling its water storage tanks as a precaution.
Chesterfield gets water from the city, Swift Creek Reservoir and Lake Chesdin. They are isolating and shutting down the lines that come from Richmond and will service the entire county using water from the other two sources.
Once the city switches and determines that the water from the alternative source is safe they will open the lines from the city, said Chesterfield’s Public Utilities department, Roy Covington.
He also said that their main priority was to provide safe drinking water for the citizens of Chesterfield County.
Investigators will examine the condition of the track and its bed after heavy rains will be one of the things they will examine, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.