Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Philadelphia’s top emergency planner won’t disclose oil-train plans

Protesters say crude-by-rail tank cars are unsafe and should be banned.

Jon Hurdle

Protesters say crude-by-rail tank cars are unsafe and should be banned.

The City of Philadelphia’s top emergency-management official said on Monday she will not disclose the city’s tactical plans for dealing with any oil-train derailment or explosion despite fresh calls from environmentalists for the city to be more open about how it would handle such an emergency.

Office of Emergency Management director Samantha Phillips said the City does not publicly state plans such as where residents would be evacuated to in the event of an oil-train incident because it’s a public-safety issue that should not be open to comment from activist groups.

She said members of the public need to make their own individual plans for responding to an emergency. She argued that people would not be helped by knowing, for example, what kind of equipment or protective clothing would be used by first responders in such an incident.

“Understanding how the City would respond does not change the actions the public should take,” she said.

Phillips also argued that disclosure of the city’s emergency plans would risk being exploited by terrorists. “We live in a really volatile time when it comes to people wanting to do bad things,” she said. “That information could be used to influence an ill-intentioned actor. We don’t think we should provide that.”

Her comments follow renewed calls by critics of Philadelphia’s many oil trains for the City to disclose its plans for an oil-train disaster. At a rally on Saturday, activists said the tank cars currently in use are unsafe and risk causing a disaster like the one which killed 47 people in Lac Megantic, Quebec in 2013.

Phillips said her agency regularly holds public workshops on preparing for different kinds of emergencies but will not hold them specifically for crude oil trains because then it would have to do so for any number of other specific emergency scenarios.

She dismissed an assertion that crude-by-rail represents a special case, and accused some environmental groups of exaggerating the threat.

“They are misrepresenting the concern and they are hyping people up because they want to get a lot of traction for their own initiatives,” she said. “We have a responsibility to frame risk in a responsible way and not scare people.”

At Saturday’s event, about 150 demonstrators representing environmental and community groups, trade unions and faith communities demanded a ban on what they say are unsafe tank cars, and called on the City of Philadelphia to hold workshops for residents so that they would know how to respond in the event of a derailment or an explosion.

Speakers said residents are at risk from the 100-plus car trains that pass daily through densely populated areas of Philadelphia, carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale to the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in south Philadelphia.

The event, part of a national week of action on oil trains, took place yards from the tracks that carry trains along the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River, next to a dog park and a basketball court, and overlooked by apartment buildings that could be devastated in the event of an incident like that in Lac Megantic, Quebec in July 2013.

“I love this neighborhood but at times I feel unsafe because of the oil trains that go right past our doorway,” Barry Renniger, a board member of the nearby Locust Point condominium building, told the rally.

Renniger’s building recently set up a committee to investigate and recommend action on the oil trains, and he is increasingly alarmed by its findings. “The more I learn, the more upset I get,” he said.

He argued that the trains are unsafe and said the number passing his building has sharply increased in recent years as the Philadelphia refinery has taken more crude from the booming Bakken field.

Renniger accused freight railroads such as CSX, which runs the trains past his building, of failing to ensure that its trains are safe.

“The railroads really are not operating these oil trains in a manner that has safety as their goal as they travel through our communities,” he said.

Renniger also criticized CSX for frequently idling its trains outside his building, sometimes for hours, emitting diesel fumes and blocking access to and from a pedestrian trail that runs between the tracks and the river bank.

“Parking trains in a highly residential area – this isn’t a rail yard,” he said.

Renniger called for the immediate replacement of “unsafe” railcars such as DOT 111s which are scheduled for a series of safety upgrades under new U.S. Department of Transportation rules that are being phased in over a number of years.

Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX, said the company has increased the frequency of its inspection of tracks that carry oil trains, and now does visual inspections several times a week, more frequently than is required by federal regulations.

Tracks are also inspected with ultrasound technology three to 12 times a year, depending in part on the volume of freight carried. At least once a year, the company inspects track geometry such as spacing, curvature and height, Doolittle said.

CSX has stepped up its use of trackside monitoring equipment to detect maintenance issues on cars, and has lowered speed limits for trains carrying 20 or more cars of crude oil, Doolittle said.

“Together, these inspections ensure the safety and suitability of our infrastructure to safely deliver every load of freight entrusted to us,” he said.

He said that CSX speed limits in Philadelphia are lower than the 40 mph that has been required by the federal government since April this year.

Since 2014, the company has offered a mobile app for first responders to give them secure access to information on hazardous materials such as crude oil being carried by any particular train, and helped to prepare local first responders for any incident as part of a tour of 18 communities in 2014.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, one of the event’s organizers, said there have been 119 derailments or explosions involving oil trains across North America in the last three years. Two of the incidents have happened in Philadelphia and even though neither resulted in fatalities or spilled oil, the city is especially exposed because the refinery is a major customer of Bakken crude, she said.

“It’s not even a matter of if it’s going to happen in Philadelphia, it’s a matter of when,” she told demonstrators.

In an interview with StateImpact, Carluccio said the safety of oil trains is compromised by the volatility of the type of crude transported from the Bakken Shale, and by the design of the tanks cars which she said are vulnerable to punctures and explosions if a train derails.

Carluccio criticized the phase-in period of the DOT’s new safety rules, and said railroads should not be allowed to use unmodified tank cars in the interim. She also accused the DOT of failing to require the removal of volatile gases from oil cargoes, and of imposing  minimal speed restrictions that will not protect tank cars from puncturing in the event of a derailment.

“We need sweeping change in order to make this safe,” she said.

She argued that the rail and refining industries should bear the cost of making oil trains safe.

“The rail industry and the refineries are making billions of dollars, and the cost is really being carried on the backs of the people who are being exposed to the dangers of these oil trains,” she said. “That needs to change.”

Although Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution in March calling for higher oil-train safety standards and urging the city and state officials to disclose train schedules to first responders and the public, the City has little power to ensure safety because freight railroads are regulated by the federal government.

Carluccio called on the City, and others where oil trains run, to appeal to authorities at the state level to call for change in Washington.

She also called on the Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management to disclose the nature and schedule of the trains so that residents can decide whether to live or work within a half-mile zone that would be vulnerable to any incident.

At the end of Saturday’s protest, the name of each Lac Megantic victim was read by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA .

“These were ordinary people just like you and me, and they were suddenly killed, much like what could happen here in Philadelphia,” he said.

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