Near disaster in Philly highlights an oil-by-rail safety crisis


Philadelphia — the densely populated 5th-largest city in America — dodged a bullet this week…but just barely:

IT COULD HAVE been worse – a lot worse.

None of the seven CSX cars – six of them loaded with volatile crude oil – that derailed on the 128-year-old rail bridge over the Schuylkill between University City and Grays Ferry about 12:30 a.m. yesterday fell onto the busy expressway, which would have risked a fiery conflagration.

And none of the oil-laden tanker cars – criticized by experts and environmentalists as too easy to rupture – broke open and spilled into the waterway as they tilted precariously, although the Coast Guard rushed a boat to the scene and placed booms across the river just in case.

The first city derailment since the former Sunoco refinery reopened last year under new ownership – largely handling rail shipments from the booming Bakken oil field in North Dakota – wasn’t a catastrophe like what happened last summer in Quebec, where a runaway train exploded in the dead of night, killing 47 people.

The situation in Philadelphia is alarming for a number of reasons. The mile-long CSX trains, each carrying about 70,000 barrels of highly flammable North Dakota crude oil, pass right through the heart of the city’s main business district, called Center City. They even pass directly under the Philadelphia Art Museum, home to what all moviegoers know as “the Rocky steps.” The bridge where the derailment occurred passes by three large hospitals, and over a busy expressway and one of the two major rivers in Philadelphia. The span was constructed in 1885-96 — that is not a typo — during the presidency of Grover Cleveland. Yet there was no real public debate about bringing such a dangerous payload through such a populated area on such ancient infrastructure.

One environmentalist told the Philadelphia Daily News that they are playing “Russian roulette” in shipping so much crude oil — soon to reach 5 million barrels every month, about the same amount that spilled from the Deepwater Horizon disaster — through the city’s crumbling freight-rail system. And he’s right.

More and more evidence has surfaced in recent weeks that the light, sweet crude oil that is produced in North Dakota through the fracking process is more flammable than a typical oil shipment — either because of the oil’s chemical composition or because of the presence of undisclosed chemicals used in the fracking process. That’s one reason why you’ve heard so much in recent months about fiery disasters like the one in Quebec that killed 47 people,  and train explosions in Alabama and North Dakota.

But the other reason for so many oil-by-rail accidents is that suddenly so much of it is being shipped. On the same day as the Philadelphia derailment, this alarming story came out:

WASHINGTON — More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents last year than was spilled in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on such spills, an analysis of the data shows.

Including major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

By comparison, from 1975 to 2012, U.S. railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. The spike underscores new concerns about the safety of such shipments as rail has become the preferred mode for oil producers amid a North American energy boom.

The federal data do not include incidents in Canada where oil spilled from trains. Canadian authorities estimate that more than 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6, when a runaway train derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. The cargo originated in North Dakota.

I’ve banged this drum here before. but we should never forget that there’d be a lot fewer fossil-fuel accidents if we used a lot less fossil fuels — and replaced them with renewable like wind or solar. But since industry and government officials have made it clear that we will be fracking up oil from North Dakota and moving it around the 50 states by rail for the foreseeable future, steps must be taken to avert what is fast becoming a crisis.

It needs to start with replacing the nation’s aging, corroded fleet of tanker cars, which are chock-full of design flaws and prone to explosion. And billions more must be spent to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure, which would not only make us safer but create new jobs for thousands. Is that expensive? Sure. But the cost of doing nothing is incalcuable.

Find out more about the oil train derailment from the Philadelphia Daily News:

To find out more about the alarming rise in American oil-by-rail spills, please read:

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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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