Refineries on the East Coast used to rely on crude oil from Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico shipped on large tankers. Today, trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale travel on rail lines through Pennsylvania. The rail shipments are part of a larger nationwide boom in rail traffic resulting from the oil and gas boom and have helped keep refineries in the Philadelphia region stay in business.
However, increased traffic on the rails has resulted in a surge in accidents, including an explosive derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec that left 47 people dead in July 2013. The crude-by-rail phenomenon has come under intense scrutiny from federal agencies, as well as state and local governments across the country who worry that a derailment in more populous cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia a could result in catastrophe.
In May 2015, the federal Department of Transportation announced new rules for oil trains which will phase out the current tank cars, implement stronger tank car standards, and require upgraded braking systems. Governor Wolf also hired an expert who will spend three months evaluating the risks Pennsylvania faces from oil trains.
While the railroads are regulated by the federal government, states have jurisdiction over emergency planning. In Pennsylvania, planning is left to counties. However, recent oil train derailments in Pennsylvania have prompted the state to step up coordination with the railroads. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency recently signed an agreement with CSX to provide access to real-time information about hazardous shipments moving through Pennsylvania. PEMA is talking with Norfolk Southern about a similar arrangement.