Philadelphia and the “Bomb Trains”

Over the weekend, 11 cars from an 111-car CSX train derailed in South Philly. The cars were carrying crude oil, but there were no leaks, no deaths and no injuries.

This time.

But the incident happened almost exactly a year after seven crude-oil-carrying cars on a CSX train derailed over the Schuylkill River, raising questions — never entirely answered — about whether Philadelphia citizens are adequately protected from the possibility of an oil catastrophe as the city grows into a possible “energy hub” future.

“Both accidents were predictable, preventable, and a near miss from potentially catastrophic impacts,” activist Iris Marie Bloom blogged on Saturday. “There must be no third derailment. That no rupture occurred is extremely lucky. We can’t leave prevention to luck.”

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


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.

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In Egypt, Is Obama Calling the Islamist Bluff?

Broken chatter over a broken Egypt is caught up in why the United States continues funneling $1.8 billion in annual aid to what is now, clearly, a coup-installed military regime. The big talk in Washington is whether the Obama administration should put a stop to it and … well … just how it looks given our

  1. past nasty Cold War penchant for funding totalitarian regimes, and
  2. national habit of leading the blind when we’re just as blind. That conversation is really focused on the face-saving aspect of the unraveling mess that is Egypt.

The Obama White House, notorious for beard-scratching deliberations as long as a Tolkien chapter, attempts to figure it all out while avoiding the aid issue. Congress, on both sides of the aisle, is steaming over administration ambivalence as officials refuse to call the coup … the coup.

But, in reality, this is Obama modus operandi 101: simply letting the crap that hit the fan fall where it may. And while it’s a pain in the ass in the short term, it sometimes pays dividends in the long term for the guy on Pennsylvania Avenue who likes the long game (weird considering his love for a sport that is based on frenzied pick-me-ups and dunks).

We saw this in the spring triplet scandals that emerged over Benghazi, the IRS and Justice Department wiretapping of the Associated Press; we also noticed it after Edward Snowden’s now-defunct bum rush of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. It’s a pattern present throughout the president’s tenure: Some scandal or controversy strikes thereby giving the media its chance to eagerly paint it as (finally) the existential threat to the Obama legacy — complete with Republican backbenchers calling up the “I” word as if it’s 1998.

What happens is the president rides it out, in an indifferent and removed way that is the exact opposite of the snap-crackle-pop, bull-in-the-China-closet approach of the previous administration. Riding out the first Arab Spring (since everyone wants to call a military-staged takeover Arab Spring II — whatever floats your boat) seemed like short-term punkishness – but, actually, it could also be seen as long term bluff-calling. Same case with Syria. The Obama Wan Kenobi school of thought ponders scenes of despair with the same coldness of Stringer Bell in The Wire or Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Crisis in this part of the world is always what it is: perpetually fracked up (head nod to my Battlestar Galactica peeps out there). So, the president goes: “and the reason we’re tripping out about this is because … ?”

Contours of the long game are curving their way through the Egyptian apocalypse, which might not be as bad as it seems if the rest of the Islamic world from Turkey to Tunisia wasn’t blowing up. Game theory suggests an Obama foreign policy fanatically intent on pulling itself away from our freakish, oil-induced obsession with the geopolitical Middle East (Egypt is really North Africa, fam). As U.S. foreign policy interests and assets shift to Africa and Asia, there is an emerging desire to control events in the Arab world, but at arm’s length, leaving it in the hands of those who live there. That Saudi Arabia just announced an $8 billion pledge to the Egyptian military’s faux “transition” government comes as no surprise as the Obama administration feels the heat from Washington critics wanting it to pull American aid — all while Egypt cracks like a Spinx nose under the weight of ballooning debt.

As the U.S. shifts further away from Islamic world oil — and gradually swerves over to more renewable energy use — the mood is swinging to a clarion “you do what you do” wave to the U.S. neck cramp that has long been the Middle East. Saudi money flowing into Egypt not only signals the spread of Saudi  influence, but it may also signal an out for U.S. aid (King Abdullah to Washington: “no worries, we’ve got this”).  Essentially, there’s a play here suggesting the U.S. slowly moves out and passes the ball over to the Saudis — one possible motivation for Obama’s excruciating wait-and-see strategy.

Another reason for the long, cold Obama stare may not be as obvious. Letting “democracy” and all the flawed political processes that unfold with it may be the new American strategy in the far-flung, unstable Islamic world: Rather than force it, let it happen organically and then let the dominoes fall where they may. Previous U.S. policy iterations of “Middle Eastern peace” attempted to fit a circle in a triangle; the Obama administration approach, however, is to let it be and, again, call the bluff of Islamists who are so hell bent on running things.

But, can they? Muslim Brotherhood activists under the now-deposed Egyptian President Morsi may have had the political savvy and determination to win Egypt’s first democratic elections. That was inevitable considering they were the only organized political faction outside of the authoritarian regime that existed. And to now have them booted from power as quickly as they took hold of it may be a carefully orchestrated attempt by Obama to show that, see, maybe modern Islamists really can’t run things. They can plant bombs in crowded markets and stage effigy-burning tap dances outside U.S. embassies. But, the question remains: Can they govern large populations? The implicit message here: Morsi, an Islamist, ran a country of 86 million into the ground … if they want to govern and rule with iron-fisted religiosity so bad, let them go ahead and do it.

You do what you do, right?

That may translate into a more gradual, keeping-hands-clean approach that ultimately lets the people decide if they want to be oppressed under the thumb of repressed religious fundamentalists or not.  In the meantime, defiantly delivering F-16s to the Egyptian military maintains the regional peace long enough to keep oil flowing through the Suez Canal while getting countries like Egypt to become less dependent on us. We’ll see how it all plays out.

Charles D. Ellison is Washington Correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and Chief Political Correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine. You can hear his political analysis every Sunday morning at 9:50am ET on WDAS 105.3 FM. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison


A Bit Late, Penn Wades Into the Fracking Debate

A team of toxicologists at the University of Pennsylvania are mounting a major study on the health effects of fracking, the controversial method of removing natural gas from deep within the earth.

The university’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology has organized a working group with researchers at other top universities includingColumbiaJohns Hopkins and the University of North Carolina to investigate and analyze reports of nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties and other ills from people who live near natural gas drilling sites, compressor stations or wastewater pits.

“There is an enormous amount of rhetoric on both sides,” said Trevor M. Penning, head of the Penn toxicology center and the driving force behind the Environmental Health Sciences Core Center Hydrofracking Working Group. “We felt that because we are situated in Pennsylvania, we had a duty to get on top of what was known and what was not known.”

Dr. Penning has asked 17 centers affiliated with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to take part in different aspects of research on the health effects of fracking. Ten have so far accepted, he said in an interview.

Penning said that the investigation would’ve begun sooner, but that state funding had been difficult to come by with top officials—including Gov. Tom Corbett—being so notably in favor of the process. [New York Times]

“When It Goes Bad, It Goes Really Bad”

When I heard that Don Argott was releasing a documentary about nuclear power, I thought it peculiar, since I knew the Rittenhouse-based filmmaker from his rock-and-roll documentaries Rock School and Last Days Here and his controversial Barnes documentary The Art of the Steal. So I tracked him down to get to the bottom of Atomic States of America, the movie he made with partner Sheena Joyce. It comes out today via iTunes and other outlets.

Did you make Atomic States in response to Fukushima?
No. We were making Atomic States for almost a year before Fukushima happened. And then on that March 12th, we started remaking the film, because Fukushima started reshaping the dialogue and people’s views about nuclear power. Read more »

BP to Pay $4.5 Billion for Gulf Disaster, Two Workers Face Manslaughter Charges

Mere hours after announcing that BP would pay a $4.5 billion settlement to the US Government over the 2010 Gulf oil spill disaster, two former employees have been charge with manslaughter, and a third with making false statements to federal investigators. Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, BP well site leaders in the Gulf at the time, are currently charged with negligence for not performing proper safety tests before the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers. David Rainey, former vice president of BP’s Gulf of Mexico exploration, will face false statement charges with obstruction of Congress tacked on for good measure. The company has five years to pay their fine, which is the largest corporate criminal penalty ever imposed. [CBS]

Why Obama Can’t Give You a Fair Shot and a Free Market

My wife and I sat down Tuesday night with a bottle of wine, a bowl of popcorn and a healthy dose of trepidation to watch the third debate of the 2012 presidential campaign. We didn’t expect to hear anything new from the candidates, and for the most part we didn’t—although we were happy to see someone in the Obama camp instructed the President on how to speak when your words are being timed. Read more »

How Pennsylvanians Can Get Gas for Less Than $2 a Gallon

Psst: Don’t tell anybody, but the worst-kept secret in Pennsylvania is that the natural gas industry—the only economic salvation our dying state had—is leaving, and being replaced by job loss, budget holes and despair. Instead of experiencing a booming economy rooted in the rebirth of American manufacturing, Pennsylvania is now witness to yet another long exodus of our best and brightest. And the Commonwealth’s march toward permanent mediocrity is accelerating. Read more »

Texas Pipeline Firm to Buy Sunoco for $5.3 Billion

Texas Pipeline Firm to Buy Sunoco. Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. is finalizing negotiations to acquire Sunoco for $5.3 billion. The Dallas-based pipeline firm will drop a combination of cash and stock to purchase Sunoco and its 4,900 retail outlets. The new owners intend to carry out the plan to get out of the oil refining business. [Inquirer]

Penn State’s New Coach in Philly. Bill O’Brien—the new head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions football program—will be in Philadelphia today for the first part of his 18-stop, meet-and-greet bus tour. [Sports Illustrated]

Mayor’s Aide Gets Cryptic With Tweet. Mark McDonald—Mayor Nutter’s press secretary—tweeted “a hypothetical” question about ethics, seemingly in response to Ronnie Polaneczky’s latest column about the PPA. She responds with a Daily News column today. [Daily News]

UPDATE: The link is broken for today. We heard the piece runs tomorrow and was inadvertently published online today.

Allen Iverson’s Wife Files for Restraining Order. Tawanna Iverson has filed for a restraining order against The Answer, citing increasingly threatening and disturbing behavior. She also claims that the former Sixer is hiding money from her. [Daily News]

One-Year-Old Dies in Berks Farm Accident. A one-year-old is dead after being trapped underneath a soil mixer that was inadvertently turned on. Police are investigating. [6 ABC]

Students Robbed in Home Invasion Near Temple. Three masked men invaded a home on North Page Street near Temple last night and robbed five students of cash and electronics. One man is in custody after the incident, while police search for the other two suspects. [NBC Philadelphia]

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