Crude oil mushroom cloud – what if that were Philadelphia?


I’m not sure what the Apocalypse would look like and I sure as hell hope I never find out, but you have to think it would look a little like some of the pictures that I saw this past week coming out of West Virginia. A massive CSX train laden with crude-oil tank cars tried to plow its way through the latest winter storm to devastate the northeastern United States this season. That turned out to be a terrible, terrible idea:

Crude oil is pouring into a river that supplies drinking water and approximately 1,000 people have been evacuated from their homes due to an oil train derailment and explosion in southern West Virginia on Monday, according to media reports.

The train, owned by CSX Corp., was carrying more than 100 tankers of crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota when it derailed at about 1:30 p.m., the L.A. Times reported. Officials estimated that approximately 14 of those tankers were involved in the derailment and subsequent fire, which as of 9 p.m. was still raging. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency at around 5:40 p.m.

One home has so far been confirmed destroyed, and at least one person has been sent to the hospital for inhaling smoke. CSX put out a statement Monday night saying it would provide hotel rooms for displaced residents. 

Concerns have also been raised about the potential contamination of local water-treatment facilities, after officials noted that at least one of the derailed tanker cars fell into the Kanawha River. The area is about 30 miles from the location where 10,000 gallons of a coal industry chemical called crude MCHM spilled and tainted the drinking water supply a little over one year ago.

Response efforts have so far been hampered by heavy snow. The area has been under a winter storm warning, according to the Associated Press, and is expected to get anywhere from 5 to 10 inches of snow tonight.

But what really stood out about the latest crude-oil-by rail disaster were the horrifying images, including the gigantic mushroom clouds from aging tanker cars as they ruptured and exploded in the hot fire — much of it captured by local TV news crews that had raced to the scene. Watching the blinding light and the intense heat, it was a small miracle that no one was killed in this incident. In an odd way, you could say that West Virginia got lucky. Although there were some homes nearby, including the one that was destroyed, the area around the wreck was lightly populated.

Yet watching the footage, I kept having the same thought: What if that had happened in Philadelphia, the nation’s fifth largest city?

With little fanfare, Philadelphia has become the No. 1 destination for crude oil trains in the United States. Every day, tens of thousands of barrels of highly flammable North Dakota crude wend their way on tracks belonging to CSX — yes, the same freight line that experienced the accident in West Virginia — to the largest refinery on the East Coast. They travel through heavily populated residential neighborhoods, in the city where America was founded. Many of those tracks date back to the heyday of the Industrial Revolution and have been poorly maintained; since the surge in oil transport by rail a couple of years ago, there have been at least two oil-train derailments in Philadelphia. One left cars dangling precariously from a bridge that was built in 1886 — that’s not a typo — over the Schuylkill River and a busy expressway.

In the long run, as we’ve discussed here many times, America has to deal with its addiction to these killer fossil fuels. But there is much that can be done in the interim, including aggressive action by the federal government to get the antiquated DOT-111 fuel cars — which are so prone to rupturing and exploding — off the tracks and replace them with modern cars that have been shown to be safer (even though it turned out to be newer cars that derailed in West Virginia.) We can’t wait for a mushroom cloud over Philadelphia to act.

I write about ways we can reduce our addiction to oil — and thus reduce the need for so many oil trains — in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America, available here:

To learn the latest about the oil-train explosion and leak in West Virginia, please read:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved
© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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