Westmoreland derailment puts spotlight on increase in crude-oil spills

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The recent derailment of railcars in Westmoreland County that caused a spill of thousands of gallons of crude oil is the largest crude oil spill in the state since 2000, according to federal records.


It is also the second incident involving the transportation of crude oil by rail in the state in less than a month.


There were 34 hazardous materials incidents involving the transportation of crude oil on railroads in Pennsylvania from 2000 to 2014, according to records from the U.S. Department of Transportation analyzed by PublicSource. Of those, 29 occurred in 2013.


“Our regulations require any unintentional spill be reported, no matter how small,” said Joe Delcambre, spokesman for the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.


Although the number of spills in the state has increased, all 29 spills last year were two gallons or under, according to the federal records.


An uptick in U.S. oil production from fracking shale deposits in North Dakota and other states has spurred an increase in rail shipments of the slick black liquid.


There has been a stunning jump in the number of trains shipping crude in recent years. In 2008, there were just 9,500 rail carloads of crude oil shipped, according to an Association of American Railroads report. In 2012, there were 234,000 carloads and the association expected that number to increase to 400,000 carloads in 2013.


Christina Simeone, director of PennFuture’s energy center, said an increase in crude oil shipments increases the risk of accidents.


“There isn’t the existing pipeline capacity to move this crude oil; as a result, this is being moved by rail,” said Simeone, of the environmental advocacy group. “I think the public needs to be more involved in understanding the potential risk.”


Simeone said some have suggested a car-by-car fee on these rail cars to build a fund to deal with safety issues. But she said she’d take it a step further and require that the shipments be bonded.


“To insure that if something goes wrong, the company has already paid to deal with it,” Simeone said.


On Jan. 20, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Philadelphia and nearly spilled its contents into the Schuylkill River. Much of the oil from the Bakken deposits is shipped to Philadelphia for refining.


After that derailment, John Hanger, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, publicly requested that Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, take action on this issue. Hanger, a Democrat, is running for governor.


After the January incident, Hanger asked that the governor convene a statewide emergency meeting of industry, state and local officials and first responders to “elevate this issue to top priority.”


“Today’s crude-oil train derailment in Vandergrift shows yet again that oil train transport in Pennsylvania threatens public safety every hour of everyday,” Hanger said in a press release.


Although no one has been injured or killed in Pennsylvania, there have been other, more serious crude-oil accidents. In Quebec, 47 people were killed in Lac-Mégantic, when crude oil being shipped from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota exploded on June 15.


In November, a train carrying 2.7 million gallons of crude oil exploded in rural Alabama. No one was injured.



PublicSource is an investigative news organization that collaborates with newspapers and radio throughout Pennsylvania. Learn more at publicsource.org. Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or nkhan@publicsource.org


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