Amtrak Derailment Could Have Lead to Evacuation of Around 15,000
The recent Amtrak derailment, which has already led to eight deaths, could have been far worse. As many already know, Amtrak 188 derailed near another train, which could have been carrying crude oil. As PhillyMag points out in a piece they ran on these so-called “bomb trains,” “a large-scale oil train fire in Philadelphia would be a fiasco. Federal officials recommend evacuating all people within a half-mile of an oil train fire—that’s how destructive they can be.”
The oil trains, carried by a company called Conrail, transport the oil, from a North Dakota shale formation, through Chicago to Philadelphia, according to a Conrail spokesperson and industry documents reviewed by The Spirit. The oil trains initially enter the Riverwards in Kensington along a line owned by Amtrak before branching off through Port Richmond near Bridesburg to cross the Delaware River. The freight then travels from Philadelphia across the Delaware River to South Jersey refineries.
Conrail is a wholly owned subsidiary of CSX and Norfolk Southern, two national rail lines, but according to a CSX spokesperson, the company operates independently. The federal government created Conrail in the 1970s to help bail out bankrupt rail companies. Though Conrail was privatized in the 1980s, it continues to receive federal funding today.
The company has since been involved with several notable environmental issues. A federal court convicted Conrail of multiple felony counts of environmental crime in 1995. The firm currently faces multiple lawsuits over a 2012 incident in Paulsboro, NJ, where a Conrail freight train derailed over a bridge in November of that year and released about 24,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, according to a National Transportation Safety Board accident report.
While a Conrail official has confirmed that the tankers near the Amtrak 188 derailment did not contain crude oil, and were in fact empty, what if they hadn’t been?
The Spirit’s analysis of the derailment suggest that had the passenger train hit nearby oil tankers, around 15,696 people from the area, including parts of Port Richmond, may have fallen within the evacuation zone: a half-mile radius around the crash site. This figure represents the total population in 12 Census block groups surrounding the crash site. The Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management did not respond to a request for comment.
However, as City Paper has reported, the office’s director during a public meeting that if an incident involving crude oil did occur, the evacuation zone would be a half-mile radius. Furthermore, a recent report from PennEnvironment indicated that the same radius was put into place in other crude oil disasters. A Conrail representative did not respond to a request for comment about their safety operations.
The Spirit‘s investigation of Conrail’s operations began before the recent Amtrak derailment, and relied upon industry documents provided to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency under a federal Department of Transportation order. The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records then mandated their public release. However, the new federal oil train regulations once again made these records inaccessible.
There have been several other documented instances of close calls regarding oil tankers in Philadelphia. A derailment left train cars dangling over the Schuylkill River in January 2014, and another train ran off its tracks in South Philadelphia a year later.
An April 2014 story in The Inquirer details a third incident, which involved Conrail tankers in Port Richmond on the train tracks crossing Aramingo Avenue near Castor Avenue, close to where Amtrak 188 derailed last week. Conrail spokesman John Enright told the Inquirer that three tanker cars of the nine-car train derailed in the 2014 Port Richmond incident. The cause of that derailment wasn’t known at the time. According to Conrail, the tankers were carrying acetone. The Philadelphia Fire Department found no leaks in the crash and no injuries were reported.
These scenarios aren’t unique to Philadelphia either. Two years ago, a runaway oil train in Lac-Mégantic, a town in Quebec, hit a nightclub and killed 47 people. Other instances in West Virginia, North Dakota, and Illinois had oil tankers catching fire in more rural area.
Philadelphia’s oil lines run through highly residential areas: University City, Southwest Philadelphia, and North Philadelphia. As maps show, if an emergency involving an oil spill were to occur, evacuating the area would be a huge undertaking and potentially result in mass casualties. The Inquirer estimates that 400,000 total Philadelphians live within a half-mile of rail lines that carry crude oil.
Some in Philadelphia have called for the creation of an “Energy Hub” in the city, especially Phil Rinaldi, CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES), the company that owns a South Philadelphia crude oil refinery. This plan would make a Philadelphia a pipeline center for crude oil, natural gas and other gas liquids. The creation of a Philadelphia Energy Hub would greatly benefit the city’s manufacturing industry—an industry that’s been crippled since the deindustrialization of the city in the 50s—but also brings up a host of safety concerns.
City representatives maintain that Philadelphia has a comprehensive emergency protocol in place to respond to a disaster involving crude oil or any other hazardous materials. Some of the information, such as evacuation routes, is available on the city’s website. City officials, however, have refused to disclose information regarding the specifics of this plan to clean water activists, who believe the city has no such formalized plan.
“That’s one of our challenges—striking the balance between sharing information so the public can be prepared and not sharing information because we do live in this post-9/11 world,” Samantha Phillips, the city’s director of emergency management, told The Inquirer.