City of Harrisburg wants more oversight of oil trains
A slew of recent accidents involving trains carrying crude oil has prompted city officials in Harrisburg to push for better oversight. City councilman Brad Koplinksi (D) is backing a resolution to urge federal officials to fast track new regulations on the trains.
“It is a situation that probably will never hit Harrisburg,” he says of the derailments. “But let’s at least be prepared and make sure our officials are working with state and federal officials, so people know of the danger.”
The domestic fracking boom has unlocked huge amounts of oil in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale. Trains have become a primary method of transport, and tanker cars pass through Pennsylvania every day. Nationwide crude oil rail traffic has increased 4,000 percent since 2008.
A recent report by the environmental advocacy group, PennEnvironment, ranked Harrisburg the eighth most vulnerable city in the state for an oil train derailment. In the past year and half, Pennsylvania has had three derailments, although none caused any injuries.
Koplinksi led a public hearing on the issue Thursday night and says he was frustrated the rail carrier Norfolk Southern declined an invitation to attend.
“We haven’t really had conversations with Norfolk Southern yet, and that concerns me,” he says. “What can we do to make the trains not run through the city? Or the most populated areas? That’s one of the biggest concerns.”
Scott Portzline of the nuclear watchdog group, Three Mile Island Alert, testified that an oil train accident near the nuclear plant could pose serious risks– especially if an explosion damaged external utility lines and cut off power to the plant.
“I don’t think the heat or blast would be the problem,” he told city council. “Loss of offsite power is the single greatest concern.”
Harrisburg city fire chief, Brian Enterline said sometimes it can be more environmentally friendly to let the fuel burn, rather than try to extinguish the flames with foam or water, which could cause oil to wash into nearby waterways.
“The trains have always been a concern for us. It’s not just the Bakken oil, it’s everything,” he said. “Is an accident going to be pretty in the city? No. But we will respond. My gut says that we’d let it burn.”