The Philadelphia region's petroleum refineries, many of which faced closure four years ago, have experienced an economic revival, thanks to the arrival of a virtual pipeline of domestic crude oil by rail.
But the same petroleum from North Dakota's Bakken oil field has been implicated in a succession of dramatic North American rail accidents in the last two years, most recently Monday in West Virginia. Video images of orange fireballs erupting from crumpled tank cars near the village of Mount Carbon last week reignited concerns that the same thing could happen here.
Two major freight carriers, CSX and Norfolk Southern, now move 45 to 80 oil trains through Philadelphia each week, Samantha Phillips, the city's director of emergency management, said.
More than 700,000 people in the region - including 400,000 in Philadelphia - live within a half-mile of the rail lines that carry crude oil, according to an Inquirer analysis. Federal emergency-response guidelines recommend a half-mile evacuation zone if a tank car containing crude oil catches fire.
"We could be evacuating a lot of people, I don't dismiss that," Phillips said. But she added: "I don't think the strategy of scaring the crap out of people is a really effective way of promoting city preparedness."
Phillips and other local officials say they are facing increasing pressure from the public to halt what activists derisively call "bomb trains."
But local officials can do little to regulate the railroads, which fall under federal jurisdiction.
"Somebody has to put some energy toward what's the safest way to operate, but that's not a local government issue," Phillips said. "We are in the consequence-management space when it comes to this effort."
She and Michael Resnick, the Philadelphia public safety director, said the city had elaborate emergency plans 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.
The city has declined to disclose specific details of its plans to activist groups, which accuse it of having no plans.
"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," Phillips said.
"We want the city to be more public," said Mary Donahue, a clean-water activist whose right-to-know request last year for the city's emergency plans was rejected. The state Office of Open Records largely upheld the city's decision.
"It's very secretive and closed off, which shows that there's something there they don't want the public to know about," Donahue said.
City officials say they also declined to disclose the schedules of the oil trains on public-security grounds.
"There are organizations or individuals bent on doing something, and you're giving them targets," said Resnick, the public safety director. "So you're telling them, 'There's a train filled with crude oil coming through this intersection at this hour, go have at it.' "
Activists are largely left to fight in a political arena, mounting pressure on federal officials to speed up adoption of new standards for more puncture-resistant tank cars for crude oil and ethanol.
Last year, City Council conducted a hearing on oil trains after a CSX train derailed on a Schuylkill bridge, leaving several oil cars tilted precariously over the river. Just last month, a second CSX oil train left the tracks in a rail yard near 11th Street south of I-95. Neither accident caused a rupture or spill.
Council took no action until after last week's West Virginia accident, when Councilman Kenyatta Johnson introduced a resolution urging new federal regulations for railcars. It also calls for the city to plan emergency-response workshops for communities along the tracks.
"It is very frustrating, because on a local level we have very limited powers to regulate the railways," Johnson said. "The federal government needs to step up. The Department of Transportation needs to do more to hold these railroads more accountable."
Since last year's bridge accident, CSX says it has stepped up training exercises with first responders and opened its SecureNOW computer system to Philadelphia officials to identify the location of all hazardous materials on its trains. City officials, including Johnson, praised the company for its communications.
Though the Corbett administration resisted calls last year to take a harder stand on oil trains, Gov. Wolf is considering a more aggressive approach.
"Gov. Wolf takes very seriously the danger oil trains pose, and he has already begun working to review the policies in place to better protect the safety of the public," said Jeffrey Sheridan, Wolf's spokesman. He said Wolf called his senior staff and cabinet together at the state's Emergency Operations Center on his second Friday in office to run through an exercise related to an oil-train derailment.
"The governor is committed to pushing for greater safety measures and increased inspections while improving preparedness," Sheridan said.
The West Virginia accident is still under investigation.
The train that wrecked was operating well under the 50-m.p.h. speed limit, according to federal investigators. CSX, operator of the train, said the track had been inspected three days before the accident. And the tank cars that ruptured and exploded were a newer design that the industry has touted as safer.
The accident underscores the particular volatility of Bakken crude, a light grade of petroleum that contains significant gassy compounds such as propane and butane.
In December, North Dakota officials adopted regulations that require the more than 1.1 million barrels of oil produced each day to be processed to reduce explosive vapors.
The new regulations go into effect April 1. Some critics say the measures still allow dangerously high volatility.
"They will have almost no impact," said Matt Krogh, a campaign director for Forest Ethics, a West Coast environmental group that has been fighting oil and coal trains.
The growth in rail shipments of oil, from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to about 500,000 carloads last year, has led to more accidents, the worst of which occurred when an unattended train derailed in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people in the community.
North Dakota crude makes its way to Philadelphia on dedicated "unit trains" that contain 100 or more railcars. Each train typically contains about 70,000 barrels, or nearly three million gallons, of petroleum.
On their five-day journey to the East Coast, the trains are handed off in Chicago to CSX or Norfolk Southern, the two carriers that serve Philadelphia.
Norfolk Southern's main oil route to the Mid-Atlantic heads through Cleveland and Pittsburgh. At Harrisburg, most traffic heads to Delaware and then approaches the city from the south, through Delaware County. Norfolk Southern also runs a secondary route from Harrisburg into Philadelphia along the Schuylkill.
CSX, which city officials say handles the bulk of the local oil-train traffic, routes most of its Philadelphia trains through New York state to Albany. There, the trains head south through Trenton and Northeast Philadelphia to East Falls, where the tracks follow the Schuylkill into Center City.
'Amazing . . . to see'
The operator of any particular oil train is not always immediately clear. CSX and Norfolk Southern sometimes share each other's locomotives and run on each other's track, or on track owned by a third party, such as Conrail.
If there is an incident, city officials say, they call CSX first since it handles most of the oil traffic. (Crude-oil tankers can be identified by red hazardous-material placards bearing the number 1267.)
The largest crude-oil buyer in the region is Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which operates the refining complex in South Philadelphia formerly run by Sunoco.
In the last two years, PES has built the largest railcar-unloading facility on the East Coast, which can receive four unit trains a day - 280,000 barrels, or more than 80 percent of its refining capacity.
Philip Rinaldi, the refinery's chief executive, boasts that the complex has been saved by cheap domestic oil, which displaced costlier imported crude that made the Sunoco refinery and others uncompetitive.
"We're now the single largest buyer of crude from the Bakken in North Dakota," Rinaldi told a conference at Drexel University in December. "We bring in nearly six miles of train a day for unloading at our facility. It's an amazing kind of thing to see."
A fact of life
Some critics call for oil trains to be routed through unpopulated areas. But the only rail routes into the PES refinery complex skirt Center City and densely populated areas of South Philadelphia.
For Philadelphia safety officials, oil trains are a fact of modern life in an industrial city. Compared with some other chemicals and fuel that move through the city - ethanol, ammonia, and hydrofluoric acid - Bakken crude oil is not the worst.
"As far as releases into the atmosphere and the waterways, crude is frankly less of a concern than some of the other substances that are in the city," said Phillips, the emergency-management director.
Yet with miles of black tank cars snaking through the region each day, the city faces few more visible threats than the oil trains.
An interactive map with a closer look at the oil-train routes is at www.philly.com/oiltrain.
On the Web
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