Another bomb went off in the American heartland tonight.
This time it was Galena, Ill. -- a town in the far northwestern corner of that state. Once again, for the umpteenth time in the last couple of years, a mile-long train carrying massive amounts of highly flammable oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota jumped the tracks, sending a large mushroom cloud into a gray winter's afternoon. Officials said that eight cars derailed, causing the massive fire, and appears that no one in the immediate vicinity got hurt. We're not always so lucky; in July 2013 a runaway oil train crashed in a populated Quebec town, killing 47 people, including some whose bodies were never found.
The exploding derailments -- activists call them "oil bombs," and when you see the pictures it's easy to understand why -- are in the news a lot, in West Virginia, in North Dakota, in Virginia, in Alabama. If members of the group ISIS somehow infiltrated the United States and set off explosions with the same intensity in the same spots, certain political figures and CNN anchors might have a nervous breakdown on your TV set. But no, it's just our own Big Oil and Big Rail doing their business...keep calm and carry on.
Maybe we shouldn't be calm here in Philadelphia. Thanks to the highly successful launch of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery from the ashes of the iconic Sunoco site along the Schuylkill River in South Philly, our hometown is now the nation's top destination for the oil trains coming from North Dakota. That means the same type of trains that exploded in rural areas also pass through dense neighborhoods in America's 5th largest city; some studies have suggested that as many as 500,000 people here live within a half-mile of the routes these trains use. In the last 14 months, there have already been two minor derailments, including one that dangled tanker cars over the Schuylkill River and the expressway.
I haven't heard any of the candidates for the mayor talk about the oil train issue -- but they should. (An interesting aside is that one of the front-running candidates, ex-city council member Jim Kenney, named the head of Philadelphia Energy Solutions to his economic development policy team.) "Oil bomb" trains don't have to be the way they are -- and a mayor has an opportunity to be part of the solution.
Of course in the long run, Philadelphia and the rest of the nation should be thinking less about greenhouse-gas polluting fossil fuels like Bakken crude and more how to make the city a renewable energy hub, such as expanded use of solar (since I heard it's always sunny in Philadelphia.) In the short run, the next mayor can lobby Washington for a) the immediate replacement of outdated tanker cars more prone to rupturing and exploding b) pre-treatment of North Dakota oil to make it less flammable, and c) a significant increase in federal spending on infrastructure, to include our faded rail lines.
Indeed, infrastructure should be a City Hall priority; residents have long complained about falling concrete and general decay on the elevated tracks taken by the oil trains across Grays Ferry. And despite assurances to the contrary, there are nagging questions about Philadelphia's level of emergency preparedness for a wreck if one eventually occurs.
There's one approach that doesn't make sense when it comes to safety -- throwing our hands up in the air. Over the next couple of months, here's hoping that Philadelphia's mayoral wannabes, not to mention City Council candidates, get asked about oil trains, and that when they do, that they have a good answer.