Energy. Environment. Economy.

Close call on Philly oil train derailment fuels calls for safety

It could be a few more days before crews finish clearing derailed train cars, including five crude oil tankers, from a bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

As of Tuesday evening, crews were working continuously in snowfall to transfer oil from the derailed cars to empty tank cars nearby on the same tracks, according to the rail company CSX.

“CSX’s priority is on safety and the environmentally responsible transfer operation,” spokeswoman Melanie Cost said in an e-mailed update.

The 101-car train was traveling from Chicago to a refinery in South Philadelphia when seven of the cars slid off the tracks on the Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge around 12:30 a.m. Monday.

It was one of several trains that bring tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Philadelphia Energy Solutions every week. After a string of more serious rail accidents involving crude in other parts of the country, the incident has amplified local concerns about the safety of these trains.

The cause of the derailment is still being investigated, but Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter says for now, the city is safe.

“For us at least, derailments are fairly uncommon, but I’m sure there’s always something that we can take a look at or focus on,” Nutter said. “You can never be too cautious or too careful, so we’ll see what comes out of this investigation.”

However, there are others who say the city dodged a major bullet.

“We came within a hair’s breadth of a calamity in Philadelphia,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hanger. He has joined the chorus of environmental groups and local lawmakers calling for more information as shipments of crude oil continue to roll through populous areas in Southeast Pennsylvania.

The seven cars that derailed in Philadelphia on Monday remained intact, but as of Tuesday evening, six of the cars, including five oil tankers and one car carrying sand, were still leaning across the bridge.

Hanger says Philadelphia was lucky compared to other communities where such derailments have resulted in spills and explosions. A derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in July resulted in the deaths of 47 people.

“People’s lives are at risk. That’s the bottom line. People’s lives are at risk,” said Hanger, who wants Governor Tom Corbett to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the problem.

Federal regulators met with energy companies and railroads last week to discuss voluntary changes to step up safety like reducing speeds and re-routing trains around high-risk areas. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Pennsylvania are calling for hearings.

“I’ve had concerns about the state of our bridges and other vital infrastructure for a while now,” said Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in a statement. Johnson wants to hold a hearing with CSX to talk about rail safety.

The House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee is considering holding a hearing on oil-by-rail safety in Delaware County in March.


  • Iris Marie Bloom

    It’s simply not true that derailments in Philadelphia are uncommon; this is the fourth such local derailment since 2011 (that we know of, thanks to Hidden City). And it’s , absurd to minimize the risks from a type of train that has blown sky-high five times since July (including explosive derailments Dec. 30th and Jan. 7th), killing 47 people in Lac-Megantic Canada and sending towering fireballs hundreds of feet into the air in Alabama, North Dakota, and Canada. Of the six Bakken Shale train derailments we know of since the deadly Lac Megantic derailment last July, the derailment in Philadelphia is the ONLY one where there was no explosion. The explosion in Lac Megantic incinerated 15 acres in addition to vaporizing 47 people. The explosion in Casselton, ND caused 1,200 people to be evacuated in a five-mile radius. Obviously it’s a lot more than just the tracks that are a huge problem here! It’s the fuel itself which is so dangerous, the rail cars which are completely not equipped to carry explosive oil and gas; the aged tracks; AND the lack of a Community Right to Know ethic in Philadelphia. Thanks to Kenyatta Johnson for speaking out, and shame on Mayor Nutter for minimizing this extremely serious risk. Both City Council and the Mayor should be calling for these trains to be immediately halted to protect health and safety.

  • Fred Phien

    Yeah meanwhile the same stuff goes by everyday on the highway, where there are many more accidents, but nobody has a problem with that. This isn’t about safety, it’s about creating a demented vision of a Marxist agrarian utopia that runs on vegetable oil, rather than crude oil. The same folks who oppose rail transport of crude also oppose pipelines to transport crude, despite that fact that they are even safer than rail.

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