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.