Philadelphia Skirts a Disaster

Train loaded with explosive shale oil derails downtown Philly over Schuylkill River near major university and hospital neighborhood
Train loaded with explosive shale oil derails downtown Philly over Schuylkill River near major university and hospital neighborhood

Philadelphia Near Disaster

by Randy Shannon

Philadelphia narrowly skirted a major disaster when a Bakken shale laden train derailed over the Schuylkill River and the Schuylkill Expressway, which bisects the city. Five previous derailments of shale oil trains resulted in massive explosions with five mile radius evacuations. One derailment burned 15 acres of downtown Lac-Megantic, Canada and vaporized 42 people.

Safety issues presented by deteriorated track, such as the 100 year old railroad bridge in Philly, aging rolling stock, and insufficient maintenance, are the result of the takeover of the transportation system by finance capital. Railroad people no longer own the railroads…and profit becomes the only objective. The solution is public ownership and control of our transportation infrastructure. Instead of selling off control of highways and riverways, public ownership needs to be expanded.

The exploitation of shale oil is an irrational pursuit of ever higher oil profits. Shale fracking is energy intensive, consuming massive amounts of natural gas, and it destroys millions of gallons of water that cannot be replaced. America needs to tax the hell out of shale oil and fund a Marshall Plan sized project for building a solar energy infrastructure. Oil burning should be taxed so that only the most critical uses are affordable and so that profits are more easily found in renewable solar, wind, and geothermal energy investments.

Below is a press release on this incident by Protecting Our Waters.

Philadelphia Derailment of “Oil Bomb” Train Sparks Outrage;

Near-Miss from Disaster is Sixth Derailment of Bakken Shale Train Since June

Groups Press for Immediate Halt

Philadelphia, PA – Outrage is building among residents whose lives are put at risk by the mile-long oil and gas trains coming from the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota, Montana and Canada, in the aftermath of the oil train derailment yesterday in Philadelphia. The derailment occurred in a densely populated neighborhood, over a major highway, near several large universities, Children’s Hospital and the University of Pennsylvania medical complex. Rapid evacuation of a five-mile radius from any future oil train explosion and fire in the Philadelphia area, or any urban area, would be impossible. When a similar train exploded and burned on December 30th, 2013 in Casselton, North Dakota, evacuation was urged for a five-mile radius to avoid damaging inhalation of toxic smoke.

Today Protecting Our Waters, Clean Air Council, Philadelphia Interfaith Power and Light, the Catskill Mountainkeeper, and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy join together in calling for a halt to the dangerous trains carrying fracked oil and gas.

“This derailment, just blocks from my Philadelphia home of 24 years, is truly terrifying because all five of the other recent derailments of this type of shale oil and gas train have erupted into fireballs, including the one that incinerated fifteen acres of downtown Lac-Megantic and killed 47 people in that small town,” said Iris Marie Bloom, director of Protecting Our Waters, a Philadelphia-based grassroots nonprofit.

“Human life is worth more than oil and gas, which is changing our climate and harming the health of residents in the increasingly extreme “sacrifice zones” for fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure, including risky transportation. These ‘oil bomb’ trains are putting lives at risk in urban and rural areas alike,” Bloom continued. “We agree with Canadian Pacific Railroad CEO E. Hunter Harrison, who told CNBC on January 15th‘These 111 tank cars that you hear so much about, if I was calling the shots, would be stopped tomorrow.’ “

“This near miss [in Philadelphia] highlights the public safety and health concerns related to a continued reliance on polluting fossil fuels for our energy needs,” said Matt Walker, Community Outreach Director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council. “No one—not the residents of the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota living near active drilling and flaring, or residents of Philadelphia, should have to be exposed to the health and safety impacts of unbridled dirty energy. The Council calls for a swift transition away from polluting and harmful energy, including fracked crude oil and gas, to clean, safe renewable energy, with conservation and energy efficiency.”

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, a member of the Philadelphia chapter of Interfaith Power and Light PA, said: “It is morally indefensible to endanger the lives of tens of thousands of people along hundreds of miles of railroad track by shipping an extremely dangerous substance in tanker cars that the authorities admit are unsafe and need to be phased out.”

“This could have been catastrophic,” said Wes Gillingham, Program Director for the Catskill Mountainkeeper. “The train could have exploded onto a busy highway, spewing the toxic contents directly into the Schkullkill river which flows into the Delaware River.”

“This should stand as a wake up call not just to Philadelphia but also all across the country to any community near a rail transport,” said Gillingham. “The clear message is we need to stop the runaway gas and oil industry from endangering our communities for the sake of their profits.”

Gillingham added, “Every time we turn around there is another report of problems with Bakken oil or tar sands crude being shipped by rail. In 2006, reports show there were 5000 rail cars of petroleum. Now we are up to somewhere around 500,000. This is a recipe for disaster with combination of inadequate inspections faulty cars, aging tracks and a greedy industry bent on getting their tar sands crude and fracked oil and gas to market as fast as they can no matter the cost to the communities along the way. In 2013 according to the pipeline and Hazardous Materials safety Administration over 1.5 million gallons of crude spilled from rail cars. That is more than has spilled in the previous forty years.”

The exploding trains have also damaged air, drinking water and wetlands. Yesterday’s derailment put the Schuylkill River at risk as toxic Bakken shale oil, known to contain carcinogenic benzene and deadly hydrogen sulfide at high levels, dangles over the river, threatening to catch fire and explode as other train cars have done.

Economist Janette Barth, PhD, who has written and lectured extensively on the economic impact of shale gas development and is a director of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, commented, “The recent derailments and explosions of trains carrying crude are just another of the many costs that have not been considered in analyses of the economic impacts of increased shale oil and gas production in the United States. It is far too costly for Americans to allow continued exploration and development of shale oil and gas. The time is now to ramp down the production and use of fossil fuels and to increase the development of renewable energy.”

BACKGROUND: The chronology of six derailments across North America overshadows the fact that yesterday’s derailment is also the fourth derailment of this type of train to occur in the Philadelphia area since 2011. First, the five previous “oil bomb” train derailments, explosions, fires and evacuations:

1.    2013: June 6th: Lac-Megantic, Canada: Bakken Shale oil train derails, explodes, burns 15 acres of downtown Lac-Megantic, vaporizes 42 people; five presumed dead.

2.    2013: October 19th: Edmunton, Canada: A fireballs erupts air as a Bakken Shale train derails; one LPG car explodes and three burn; homes burn to the ground.

3.    2013: November 8th: In rural Alabama, 20 cars of a Bakken Shale oil train derail, burning and sending a fireball 300 feet into the air, also polluting a wetlands.

4.    2013: December 30th: In Casselton, North Dakota a stunning mushroom-shaped fireball erupts, followed by heavy plumes of toxic smoke, when 21 cars of a Bakken Shale oil and gas train derail and burn. Town evacuated; evacuation urged for everyone in a five mile radius to avoid the toxic smoke.

5.    2014: January 7th: Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, Canada: 150 people evacuated when 17 cars derailed including 5 oil cars, 4 LPG cars. Two LPG tank cars and one crude oil tank car caught fire.

6.    2014: January 20th: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Seven cars of a 101-car CSX train from Chicago derailed on the Schuylkill Arsenal Railroad Bridge over the Schuylkill River. Six were carrying crude oil, and one was carrying sand.

 Philadelphia area derailments involving 111 type tank cars since 2011:

1.    Derailment in East Park near Fountain Green Drive in January 2011

2.    Derailment in Paulsboro in November 2012

3.    Derailment in September 2013 near PBF’s Paulsboro refinery

Risk factors making Bakken Shale oil trains particularly unacceptably dangerous:

1. Rail cars of the 111 type are not designed to carry this type of fuel

2. Presence of volatile organic compounds, including carcinogenic benzene, increases pressure, flammability and explosive character of the fuel

3. Presence of deadly and explosive hydrogen sulfide gas, found by Enbridge in Bakken Shale oil at 1,200 parts per million. Just a few inhalations of H2S at 200 parts per million can cause respiratory failure in humans.

4. Researchers have found that in collisions, the highly rigid thin skins of the (111 type) tank ruptures easily.

5. Rails over which these trains travel are often very old. The Philadelphia railroad bridge involved in yesterday’s derailment was built at the turn of the 20th century.

6. Experts are wondering whether the Bakken Shale oil and gas is so flammable that it should be re-categorized as a Class 1 explosive material, but while the experts wonder, it is categorized as if it is less explosive and flammable than it in fact is.


Source for CNBC quote: A lifelong “railroad man,”  E. Hunter Harrison, CEO of Canadian Pacific, said on January 15th, 2014, “The 111 tank cars that you hear so much about, if I was calling the shots would be stopped tomorrow,” Harrison said, speaking with Tyler Matheson on CNBC’s Nightly Business Report. “They’re not ready, they’re not equipped for that commodity [Bakken Shale crude] as I see it, they’ve been controversial for two decades now, so that needs to change.”

Source for Philadelphia area derailments and H2S content in Enbridge oil tank: Hidden City: “A Petaled Rose of Hell: Refineries, Fire Risk, and the New Geography of Oil in Philadelphia’s Tidewater,” by Christopher Dougherty. Online at

More background on all 6 Bakken shale train derailments and on Bakken fracking and flaring: type “Bakken” into “search” on for links, photos, video.

Iris Marie Bloom

Executive Director, Protecting Our Waters
Phone: 215.840.6489

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