Looking at so many spectacular crude oil train explosions, including recent conflagrations in West Virginia and Illinois, Pennsylvanians have good reason to wonder when disaster will strike here.
And we do mean “when” — not “if.”
Because there are so many oil trains heading from North Dakota’s booming oil fields to Philadelphia-area refineries — some 60 to 70 a week — each carrying such easily combustible cargo, in tank cars that routinely rupture upon derailment, a catastrophe somewhere in the state is almost inevitable.
A federal study predicts that the nation will see an average of 10 fuel tanker derailments a year over the next 20 years, causing $4.5 billion in damage.
Pennsylvania has already seen four non-catastrophic oil train derailments, including one that left tank cars teetering on a Philadelphia bridge. Only dumb luck kept oil from gushing into the Schuylkill River.
The long-term way to improve oil transport safety is to get the oil out of rail cars and into a pipeline.
According to one estimate, nearly one in three Pennsylvanians — some 3.9 million — live within the federally-recommended evacuation zones along the oil trains’ routes across the commonwealth. (Another estimate finds “only” 1.5 million residents are at risk of evacuation.)
Oil trains routinely run through both Harrisburg and the West Shore. If disaster struck in the wrong place, much of the city and the entire Capitol complex would have to be evacuated.
Because railroad regulation is a federal responsibility, there’s not much local governments at the front lines of potential disaster can do. Their emergency teams train as best they can to respond and contain the damage. (Some oil train fires are so big, they have to burn themselves out.)
At the state level, there’s not a lot Pennsylvania can do either. Gov. Tom Wolf would like to have more railroad inspectors (there are only six for 5,000 miles of track), and has asked President Barack Obama for federal help on that score.
Wolf also wants the federal government to work faster on other ways of reducing the threat posed by booming oil train traffic.
One quick way to cut the risk is telling oil shippers to remove the most flammable hydrocarbons from the highly combustible crude oil coming by rail from North Dakota. The state of North Dakota imposed a new standard on that score (known as the “vapor pressure” of the crude oil) but the rule could be stronger. The oil on the train that exploded and killed 47 people in Quebec in 2013 would have met the new standard.
Wolf also wants the federal government to review speed limits on tanker trains and expedite its work on new safety standards for oil tankers, possibly including new braking systems.
In September, the feds proposed a two-year transition that would require all oil to be carried in stronger tank cars. However, “stronger” may not be strong enough. Some recent disasters, including the latest in Illinois, involved tank cars built to the more stringent standard voluntarily adopted by the rail industry.
The long-term way to improve oil transport safety is to get the oil out of rail cars and into a pipeline. In the meantime, without strong preventive measures, we are left to rely on luck to avoid disaster.