Philadelphia and the “Bomb Trains”

Another oil train derailed over the weekend. Three ways to make Philly safer.

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.”

She is right to be concerned. Where there are oil shipments, there are frequent — if frequently minor — incidents: ProPublica’s Isaiah Thompson reported in November that “in at least 65 cases over the last two years, tank cars bound for or arriving in Philadelphia were found to have loose, leaking or missing safety components.”

And while catastrophic events involving crude don’t happen every day, they can be devastating. In 2013, an oil-train derailment in Quebec set off an explosion that killed 47 people. There have been several more huge explosions in recent years, albeit with fewer casualties, but even federal regulators think there is good reason to be concerned.

Put it this way: Critics have dubbed the rail shipments “bomb trains.

Sound hyperbolic? Maybe not:

The trains don’t just bring risk to Philadelphia, though. They bring jobs, too, and any calculation of the public good has to include that factor.

The shipping of crude oil from North Dakota has revived Philadelphia’s refining industry, on the cusp of death a few years ago. That has created jobs for 1,000 workers. The city’s leaders — despite their bickering on the specifics — envision that revival as the foundation of Philadelphia’s future as an “energy hub” that could serve the nation and foster energy independence.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t demand things be done better and more safely. Three things that must and should be done:

• Local authorities should be prepared and prove they’re prepared. In his ProPublica report, Thompson reported:

But even after the (2014) derailment, Philadelphia “has not issued new plans, directives, or protocols in response to the increase of crude oil shipments,” wrote city director of Emergency Management Samantha Phillips in an email to ProPublica.

The Philadelphia County Local Emergency Planning Committee “has not been active on the transportation of Bakken crude oil,” Phillips added.

That’s no longer acceptable.

• Federal authorities need to adopt tougher safety standards, soon. Federal officials have said they want to phase out use of the DOT-111 tanker car — considered particularly vulnerable to catastrophic accidents — by 2017. (We haven’t been told what kind of cars were involved in the weekend derailment.) The Department of Transportation has come under pressure from railroad and oil industry advocates, who want to delay final implementation until 2020. Bad idea. The tradeoff for doing profitable business has got to be that the industry makes every reasonable effort to protect the public from the risks. We should find out the final decision in May.

•Make the industry feel pain when it does put citizens in danger. InsideClimate news recently reported: “Fines are low, on the theory that the cost and consequences of an accident are sufficient incentive for railroads to properly maintain their tracks and bridges. In 2013, the (Federal Railroad Administration) issued $13.9 million in fines to an industry whose top seven revenue gainers alone took in nearly $84 billion.” You know what’s an even better incentive to do things right? A very expensive punishment for doing them wrong. Make those fines bite.

Iris Marie Bloom doesn’t believe in half-measures: She wants the oil shipments to stop entirely. “If you do live in Philadelphia, this is the time to begin demanding relentlessly that these trains stop coming through Philly every day, period,” she wrote over the weekend.

Absent a catastrophe, that won’t happen. We can expect better protection from the risks, however. After the weekend, it’s clear the time to make those demands is now.

Find @JoelMMathis on Twitter.