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By Walter Brasch

The derailment of a 101-car CSX freight train on a bridge in a densely-populated part of Philadelphia this past week should be yet another warning to politicians who have become cheerleaders for oil and gas fracking.

The train had been hauling crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.  A severe snow storm delayed by several days removing the derailed cars and 80,000 gallons of crude oil from the decades-old bridge over I-76 and the Schuylkill River, which flows into the Delaware River. Oil and gas companies using horizontal fracking have made the Bakken the most productive oil shale in the country.

Numerous articles and scientific research studies have already shown the link between horizontal fracking and health and environmental problems. But the transportation of shale oil and gas by trains, trucks, and pipelines poses more immediate threats.

About 92,000 of the 106,000 tanker cars currently in service were built before 2011 when stricter regulations mandated new design. The older cars (DOT-111) have an “inadequate design” and are susceptible to leaks and explosions in derailments, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Railroad accidents in 2013 in the United States accounted for about 1.15 million gallons of spilled crude oil, more than all spills in the 40 years since the federal government began collecting data, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

Forty-seven persons were killed, and more than 30 buildings destroyed by fire, explosions, and smoke on a 73-car unmanned train that rolled down a seven mile incline and derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, July 6. Seventy-two tanker cars of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic railroad were carrying crude oil from the Bakken Shale to a New Brunswick refinery. The accident released about 1.5 million gallons of crude oil; it was the worst rail disaster in North America since 1989.

Less than a week later, three tanker cars on a Norfolk Southern train carrying 90,000 gallons of ethanol exploded near Columbus, Ohio. The explosion led to the evacuation of residents within a mile of the accident.

Three months later, a Canadian National train hauling oil and gas derailed in Gainford, Alberta; three of the tanker cars carrying liquefied natural gas had leaks and were on fire as a result of the derailment. No injuries were reported.

In November 2013, a 90-car Genesee & Wyoming train, carrying about 2.7 million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken Shale, derailed near Aliceville, Ala., spilling about 750,000 gallons into surrounding wetlands; fire and toxic smoke burned for more than a day. No immediate injuries were reported, although the effects of the fireball explosions and toxic smoke might not be known for several months.

In December, a 106-car BNSF train hauling Bakken Shale crude oil slammed into a 112-car train carrying grain that had derailed near Casselton, N.D. Explosions, fire, and toxic smoke led county officials to urge evacuation of all residents within five miles of the accident. About 400,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled, according to estimates by the National Transportation Safety Board.

A week later, 45 homes were evacuated in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, after a Canadian National train carrying propane and crude oil from the Bakken shale derailed and caught fire.

This month, PHMSA issued a safety alert that “crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than the traditional heavy crude oil.” Bakken shale oil could cause evaporative losses of explosive volatiles benzene, toluene, hexane, xylene, and hydrogen sulfide, all of which can cause death from burns and respiratory failure.

Each day, interstate carriers transport about five million gallons of hazardous materials. Not included among the daily 800,000 shipments are the shipments by intrastate carriers, which don’t have to report their cargo deliveries to the Department of Transportation. I-80, which bisects Pennsylvania and the Marcellus Shale, is one of the most heavily traveled routes for trucks hauling chemicals to fracking sites. There have already been several spills from traffic accidents. Contributing to the probability of increased disasters in Pennsylvania is a road and bridge system that has deteriorated because of a combination of increased truck traffic from the shale gas industry and decades of neglect by the state’s politicians. Scott Christie, an executive with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, told a House committee, “Most of these road-ways do not have sufficient strength to withstand the large amount of trucks and other vehicles that are a part of Marcellus shale drilling.”

About half of the nation’s 2.6 million miles of pipelines are at least 50 years old; corrosion is responsible for between 15 and 20 percent of deaths, injuries, or property damage, according to ProPublica, an independent investigative journalism news operation. More than 150 incidents a year involve large natural gas transmission lines and the smaller distribution lines. Because methane is explosive and flammable, problems can occur anywhere from the first exploratory hole to delivery in pipelines to homes and businesses. There is at least one major natural gas explosion, fire, or leak every week, according to documentation compiled by Natural Gas Watch.

Pennsylvania’s Gas and Hazardous Liquids Pipeline Act, which became law in December 2011, includes oversight of classes 2–4, but excludes Class 1 pipelines. A Class 1 location is any area with “10 or fewer buildings intended for human occupancy within 220 yards of the center-line of the pipeline,” according to PHMSA. About 1,300 miles of Pennsylvania’s natural gas pipelines are Class 1 pipelines. No state or federal agency has jurisdiction over pipelines in Class 1 rural areas, nor are operators required to report any incidents, including property damage, injuries, or deaths associated with those pipelines. Regulating Class I pipelines is “at the bottom of the state’s priority list,” Patrick Henderson, energy executive for the Corbett Administration, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Nationally, PHMSA regulates only about 20,000 of 200,000 miles of natural gas gathering pipelines and only about 4,000 of the estimated 30,000–40,000 miles of hazardous liquid gathering pipelines. Only about one-fourth of all oil, natural gas, and propane pipelines have been inspected since 2006, according to Public Employees for Environmental Response (PEER), which had to file a Freedom of Information Act suit request to get the public records.  

Like the aging pipelines, many of the railroad bridges over the Bakken and Marcellus shales are decades old. Mile-long trains of tanker cars that are not designed to carry crude oil, but travel between the oil fields of North Dakota and refineries in Philadelphia put the entire nation at risk. Unlike the other derailments the past six months, there were no leaks, explosions, or health problems caused by the derailment of the CSX freight train in Philadelphia.

That will not always be the case.

[Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth analysis of the economic, health, and environmental effects of horizontal fracturing in the United States.]

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Comment Preferences

  •  Fracking is just a symptom (0+ / 0-)

    Fracking is an end stage symptom of the underlying addiction to fossil fuels.  When the addict is in need of a fix, he will shake his own house to bits looking for that last stash or the money to go buy it.  Even though fracking is just as harmful to the Earth we live on, civilization is so addicted to fossil fuels that they will shake out more fossil fuels, climate change be damned.

  •  If people knew... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    praenomen, Roadbed Guy, greengemini

       ...what we shipped past their homes in the middle of the night, they wouldn't sleep as well.

    Compost for a greener piles?

    by Hoghead99 on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 06:00:22 AM PST

    •  Yup, but some good citizens take the time (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jabney, greengemini

      to find out . .. . like one of my neighbors from decades ago who was mightily concerned about 10 or 20 cars of chlorine gas that when through our neighborhood every day.

      In fact he taught his kids how to climb a tree in case of a derailment (with the idea that chlorine gas, begin denser than air, would hug the ground and they'd be safe at the top of the tree).    

      I totally shared his concern about the chlorine gas, but to this day remain skeptical about the effectiveness of the remedy.  Fortunately there was never a need to test it in real life.

  •  Is there any information whether (0+ / 0-)

    crude oil trains are more prone to derailment than other trains?  Because just based on their relative numbers, every time a crude oil train derails about 20 additional trains should also go off the tracks, many of which also carry highly hazardous substances.

    But I don't read about them here at DailyKos so maybe people are just not interested (as compared to crude oil somehow making a train more susceptible to derailment . .. ).

    •  I don't think so. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roadbed Guy, 6412093

      It's a matter of media coverage.  Trains derail all the time but rarely does it make much beyond the local news.

      •  That's an interesting link (0+ / 0-)

        showing a bunch of derailments in the Northeast of the USA on the first page of results and none anyplace else.

        I wonder if that's because that's the only place trains are derailing, or if Google thoughtfully personalized the search for me (what with me living in the Northeast, which they must have somehow figured out on their own or perhaps with NSA assistance).

        •  Derailments happen everywhere ... (0+ / 0-)

          ... most of them are minor, resulting in no loss of cargo. The causes are myriad - bad track, component failure on a car, an obstruction on the track or, in relatively few cases, rail crew negligence.

          As for Google personalizing your search "perhaps with NSA assistance," Google doesn't need the NSA. They know way more about you than the NSA does.

          I vote we run Rick Scott out of Florida on a high-speed rail.

          by ObamOcala on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 06:44:28 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  The volume of Bakken dilbit moved by rail (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            has increased tremendously in the last few years, so it's share of possible derailments has likely increased.  Is it more than its proportional share to the total number of trains/tonnage/railroad cars? I dunno.  Probably buried in the figures somewhere.  It sure is a bit more explosive/flammable than, say, corn syrup.

            I'm part of the "bedwetting bunch of website Democrat base people (DKos)." - Rush Limbaugh, 10/16/2012 Torture is Wrong! We live near W so you don't have to. Send love.

            by tom 47 on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 08:14:55 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  It's Google geolocation working. (0+ / 0-)

          The same link shows me a bunch of train derailments in the Texas area, where I live.

  •  for what it's worth (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    what's being shipped along the frieight route through Center City has long, long been an issue.

    Before this oil boom, that line had chlorine and ammonia traffic and probably still does.

    If you really knew what's being shipped in trains through your towns all the time, you probably wouldn't sleep very well for a time.

    Dawkins is to atheism as Rand is to personal responsibility

    by terrypinder on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 07:45:51 AM PST

  •  Train derailments don't have anything at all (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    to do with hydraulic fracturing.

  •  If fracking stopped tomorrow (0+ / 0-)

    The same volumes of crude and natural gas would move around the country, just more by pipeline, less by train.

    Our demand for fossil fuels would not change if fracking ended.  More crude would just arrive in tanker ships, and move by pipeline, rather than in railcars.

    The numbers of oil spills and their volumes and gas pipeline explosions and fires would probably not change by much if fracking ended.

    “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

    by 6412093 on Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 11:00:48 AM PST

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