Millions of gallons of crude oil are passing through western Pennsylvania — up to 75 trains each week on their way to refineries in the East — according to records released by state emergency management officials.
A Tribune-Review analysis of the records released by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency shows the trains each carry at least 1 million gallons of potentially flammable crude oil through Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.
Norfolk Southern Railway Co. runs between 30 and 65 oil trains across four routes each week through the counties to refineries in Philadelphia. CSX Transportation Inc. runs between two and 10 trains across two routes, according to company records issued by PEMA on Oct. 8.
In the nine months after several accidents involving railcars transporting crude oil in Pennsylvania and nearby states, county and state emergency management officials say they’re satisfied with new industry and government safety measures and feel better prepared to respond to incidents.
Both companies have been helpful in sharing information so the state can prepare for accidents and both are in talks to allow local emergency responders real-time access to transport information, said Cory Angell, a PEMA spokesman. “That makes a huge difference in your ability to respond to any kind of situation,” he said. “That’s way more significant than what we have right now with this.”
Chris Tantlinger, hazardous materials coordinator for Westmoreland County, said rail operators “transport hazardous materials every day and continuously, and this product is another part of the whole hazards realm that we deal with. We try to gather as much information about the chemical properties and how to best handle the situation.”
In February, 21 Norfolk Southern rail cars hauling propane gas and Canadian crude oil derailed in Vandergrift in Westmoreland County, skipping the track before crashing into a metals factory and spilling thousands of gallons of crude oil. No one was injured, but the crash highlighted safety issues of transporting crude oil.
Dave Pidgeon, spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said, “Regardless of how many trains there are moving through Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, I think it’s important for people to know hauling crude by train on Norfolk networks is safe, and it’s getting safer.”
Daily crude oil rail shipments in the United States have increased from 800,000 barrels a day in 2012 to 1.4 million in 2014, according to the Energy Policy Research Foundation in Washington. Of the crude oil produced in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, 66 percent is shipped to other parts of the country by train, according to the foundation.
In response to several accidents, federal regulators, the rail industry and local emergency responders say they have come together to better share information and put new safety measures in place and are working to update rail cars and better monitor the railways on which they run.
Despite strides, critics want to see a more comprehensive safety plan and full disclosure of trains carrying crude. “We need full disclosure. We need monitoring on what’s being carried where, when,” said Robert Gardner, director of the Beyond Natural Gas campaign with the Sierra Club in Pennsylvania.
Norfolk Southern, based in Virginia, operates about 20,000 route miles in 22 states and the District of Columbia. CSX, based in Florida, operates 21,000 route miles of track in 23 states.
Fiery freight disasters in Alabama, North Dakota and Canada in the past year included a July 6, 2013, train crash in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that ruptured Bakken oil, incinerating much of the downtown and killing 47 people.
Since the accidents, the federal Department of Transportation mandated new track safety standards, which CSX and Norfolk say they’ve embraced. In January, federal regulators instituted more frequent track inspections, more advanced breaking systems, lower speed limits in urban areas and track-side wheel bearing detectors.
The number of rail carloads of crude from North Dakota began rising in 2012 and reached a capacity of 965,000 barrels a day by the end of 2013, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
“As Bakken production keeps rising, until we get some pipeline capacity, it’s got to leave by rail,” said Kevin J. Lindemer, an energy industry analyst with IHS in Boston. “That’s the only way incremental production can get out of North Dakota at this point.”
Release of the rail transport records by PEMA occurred after a dispute between the state’s Office of Open Records and Norfolk Southern and CSX over whether they should remain confidential. Earlier this month, the Open Records Office ordered them released, five months after the federal government asked rail companies to hand over information on interstate shipments of crude oil.
Norfolk and CSX have said releasing the information threatens security and is commercially sensitive.
“We continue to believe that the information that we provided should be kept confidential both for security reasons and because its commercially sensitive to our customers,” said CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle. “The information is certainly available to the emergency agencies that would need it to respond. We believe that’s really where the information should be available.”
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