5 Questions: Iris Marie Bloom on Philly’s Dangerous Train Derailment

“Scared shitless is really the appropriate response.”


Iris Marie Bloom makes no bones about it: Oil-carrying trains like the one that derailed over the Schuylkill River this week are a threat to the health and safety of nearly every Philadelphian. (If you think she sounds alarmist, consider this: U.S. and Canadian regulators on Thursday warned a “major loss of life” could occur if rail shipments of oil continue from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana.) Her solution? It’s time to conserve and convert — use less energy, and use more renewable energy in place of fossil fuels.

The director of Protecting Our Waters talked with Philly Mag this week about the dangers posed by the trains, and how America’s greener future can possibly make us safer. Some excerpts:

This week a train carrying shale oil derailed over the Schuylkill River. Environmentalists have been sounding the alarm since. Why is shale oil of particular concern in incidents like these?

Well the Bakken shale oil has caused five trains carrying Bakken shale oil to blow up sky high in just the past seven months. So that is an extremely bad track record. And it’s caused 47 people to be vaporized, I mean killed, in Lac-Megantic, Canada. That was kind of the real warning bell. But instead of heeding the warning bell and stopping the trains, they’ve been allowed to continue, and that’s resulted in massive explosions and fires in Alabama, in North Dakota, two more explosions and fires in Canada, and all of those involved derailments.

Scientists and engineers don’t have all the answers yet as to why this particular type of crude is blowing up over and over, but we do know that it has volatile organic compounds. … Between the volatile organic compounds and the hydrogen sulfide, it’s clear that these tanker cars — which are old and outmoded — are completely not equipped to carry such an explosive flammable fuel.

Do we have any idea of how much of this stuff is passing through Philadelphia every week?

Yes. there are two mile-long trains of at least 100 cars — sometimes they are 118 cars, 120 cars long, but they are all a mile long — that are coming through Philadelphia twice a day, which is completely unacceptable, putting the entire population at risk. In the second-to-last massive incident, the one in Casselton, North Dakota, when that train exploded it sent a fireball into the sky, it was mushroom-shaped, it’s terrifying to look at it. The town was evacuated, but they also evacuated 1,200 people within a five-mile radius of that incident because the smoke plumes are so toxic and so heavy and so dangerous. So imagine trying to evacuate a five-mile radius around the Schuylkill on Arsenal Bridge. [laughs] It just gives you a sense of how inappropriate this is.

Is there a better or safer way to transport these types of materials? Are there better containers? Does it need to be routed away from major metropolitan areas? Or should we just not be transporting this stuff at all?

We believe that we shouldn’t be transporting this at all and that’s because in the bigger picture it’s terrible for climate. Natural gas is coming up with the oil in the Bakken shale, and they’re burning it off — the massive flaring in the Bakken shale right now, which can be seen from outer space it’s so massive — they’re burning off one-third of all the natural gas that comes up. So that in and of itself should be enough in a rational society to stop fracking the Bakken shale, because that’s a crime against climate and we’ve seen how devastating climate impacts are.

That said, yes, there are safer tank cars but the industry has refused to take the old, unsafe — they’re called the DOT-111 tank cars — which have already been controversial for 20 years. They’re thin-skinned, they’re rigid, it’s easy for them to explode and they are exploding, and the railroad industry has refused to take those cars out of service. So that is morally indefensible right there.

I know that you and some of your colleagues have argued that the best thing to do would be to convert to cleaner energy sources. Critics might argue that America has become more energy-independent in recent years and that we mitigate, maybe, some other risks by producing oil domestically and in Canada rather than having it brought in overseas via ship. What options could we choose to make, say, within a year, that would make the biggest difference?

Well the biggest, most important solution is actually conservation and energy efficiency, and after that it’s renewables. So wind, for example, wind energy is becoming comparable and in some cases is more affordable than natural gas, for example. So we have renewables becoming competitive with fossil fuels and we need policy, such as we recently saw in Minnesota. In Minnesota, a judge ordered the public utility to convert to renewable energy instead of using natural gas for ecological reasons. So we need policies that actually support that conversion to renewables, but the renewables alone are not enough, unless we are really concentrating on energy efficiency and conservation.

How worried should Philadelphians be about those train tracks going over the Schuylkill?

Not just the trains tracks over the Schuylkill, the entire route is dangerous. So there are elevated tracks over Drexel University near 30th Street Station. There’s a curve by Bartram’s Garden in West Philly. There are tracks down by the river by the Schuylkill Expressway near City Line Avenue, where Ridge and Lincoln Drive come off of City Line Avenue and the Schuylkill Expressway. So all these places are dangerous because this is an extremely dangerous fuel and completely unsafe tank cars on 100-year-old tracks.

So “scared shitless” is really the appropriate response, and people should be calling Mayor Nutter and their City Council members and all their elected officials and demanding that these trains stop.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • DTurner

    To be fair, building a pipeline would be significantly safer (not 100% safe, but safer than rail) than the status quo. Let’s not make this an all or nothing argument by saying that the only solution is to stop shipments entirely.

    • matthew brandley

      Dear stupid . Do you want to pay over 5 bucks for a gallon of gas? Better be carefull for what you wish for. As long as commy obammy is in office and that wench ginny Mccarthy and those aholes at the Sierra club are around the pipelines will never EVER be built.

      • DTurner

        Sorry, I don’t drive. I used the country’s best public transit system instead.

        • matthew brandley

          sorry so hard on you . septa is indeed the best mass transit agency in the country with all the awards to back it up

      • Ann Dixon

        A lie perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry is that extracting oil and gas in the US will keep prices low for citizens. The fuel will go to the highest bidder. Right now pipelines and ports are being built to bring fracked gas to Norway. What we really need to be doing is developing renewables like the big solar electricity purchasing project that Community Energy just built at Temple University.

        According to the US Pipeline Hazardous Safety Administration shale oil does seem to be more flammable than other types of oil. Transporting so much of it by train is a fairly new practice. There hasn’t been time to gather much scientific data. We need a moratorium on train transportation until science can catch up.

    • JHansen
      • DTurner

        Safer =/= 100% safe, of course, but a pipeline it would allow a little more flexibility with routing than the current rail corridors.

  • Stein

    Safety isn’t the objective of these people.
    Economics don’t matter to them.
    It’s all about centralized government control.

    • matthew brandley

      the railroads are privetly run stupid. They are however regulated by the railroad .Again another bone headed useless comment by another uneducated fool has been posted on here.

      • Stein

        No offense buddy, but read what you wrote:
        “the railroads are privetly run stupid. They are however regulated by the railroad”. What does that even mean?

        Now read what the subject of the article says:
        “a judge ordered the public utility to convert to renewable energy instead of using natural gas for ecological reasons. So we need policies that actually support that conversion to renewables, but the renewables alone are not enough, unless we are really concentrating on energy efficiency and conservation.”

        She’s not advocating railroad investment. She’s advocating judicial and governmental intervention in the energy economy.

        Not for safety.
        Not to lower energy costs for Americans, but for government control of the economy.

        • matthew brandley

          correction they are run by privetly and regulated by the feds aka the fra. The feds already have intervention the energy. Thats why weare paying so much for gas. Its called the renewable fuel energy credit the fuel cos have to pay for a biofule from algae that doesnt even exist yet. almost $!.00 of every gallon of gas goes to taxes by the feds that are levied to pay for taxes the oil cos have to pay to the epa aka extortion

          • Stein

            I think I would agree with you if I could figure out what you are saying..?..?

          • matthew brandley

            look up renewable fuel credit in your search engine and go learn something

          • Stein

            I work in the energy industry, I’m well aware of how it works. I’m also aware that dipshits like this Bloom woman are trying to increase government intervention in Energy, beyond the foolhardy over-regulation they have already enacted.

          • KeepTapWaterSafe

            You can’t dangle toxic oil trains over the water supply of a major metropolitan area and whine about too much government regulation at the same time.

        • matthew brandley

          the goverment effs up everything they do. the goverment regulates the railroad and the railroads are privetly run is what I was trying to say. Libs and damn green energy. To expensive. Germany just fired up a coal powered plant that was dormant when they realised green was to expensive. allmost $ 1.00 of every gallon of gs goes to the feds for a renewable fuel credit the feds have to charge the refineries . bet you didnt know that did you. Its for stuff like algae biofule thats to expensive to make among other biofules that dont even exist that we have to pay for!. thank commy obamamy and the epa for it!

  • matthew brandley

    OMG! You people are indeed such clueless fools! ethanol trains along with countless and I mean COUNTLESS other hazaerdous biological , chemical, and industrial materials move through the entire phila region every day without incident! And know you liberal clowns are getting in a uproar over this? I agree it was almost a catastophy. No agument from me. CSX needs to replace bridges instead of concentrating on the clearance and gateway project they are doing in the n e midwest and mid atalntic to run double stack intermodal trains thats diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from maintenance. Almost every bridge is over 100 years old and is in dire need of replacement. The high line was shut down last year for emergency repairs. look what happend in paulsbore. Bridge built in civil war era that failed, . Again do your research and know what your talking about and know exactly whats going on before you even comment on here.

    • Astralmilkman

      Ease up Mathew , name calling isn’t going to bring anybody to your side. I agree with you on many things such as bringing up to date the bridges and tracks . Also that lots of HAZMAT is running on our rails and most people don’t know or care to know. I drive tractor trailers in Philly and see the infrastructure that most people don’t even notice . Every energy source has drawbacks no matter what anybody says. Bloom has concerns about safety ,
      That’s good , but her answer is just plan silly and unattainable. America runs on many different fuels . That’s never gonna change , we have industry that employs many philadelphians that service that industry , hopefully that also doesn’t change , this us or them mentality is simply wrong and a waiste of energy . That derailment on the bridge , we got lucky. I’m no engineer but I would think all rail bridges would have high sides to keep the cars from falling into the river. There’s many common sense things that the rail road and Philly could do to increase safety while the pin heads talk amongst themselves. Perhaps online is the place o have those talks……I look forward to t hat conversation.

  • KeepTapWaterSafe

    State Senator Daylin Leach, whose district is criss-crossed by these trains, has proposed SB1171, a bill that would nearly double renewable energy in Pennsylvania. It has a broad base of support from major economic and environmental stakeholders in the state, including Blue-Green Alliance, Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition and PennFuture. Makes sense, too, given the fact that Pennsylvania is the third highest carbon producing state in the nation. We ought to follow the US military’s lead and deploy renewables now — a solar panel on every rooftop!

  • mordechai

    Pipeline accidents are also dangerous and occurring with increasing frequency. The bottom line is moving to renewable energy sources, investing in mass transportation and learning to have an economy that is more efficient. It cost $18 for conservation efforts to save a barrel of oil, it cost $100 for a new barrel of oil.

  • Charlie Affel

    Update 1/31……10 days later it’s still there !