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When a train operated by CSX derailed as it crossed Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River in January, residents had good reason to be concerned.

The train was carrying petroleum crude oil—a substance that is highly flammable and has become, thanks a boom in oil production in North Dakota and Canada, a major concern for cities across the country after several deadly explosions. The worst, last July in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killed over 40 people and burned down a quarter of the town.

The week before last, a group of environmental activists, lead by an interfaith coalition of religious and community leaders, held a protest calling attention to the hundreds of “oil trains” that come through Philadelphia, sometimes on a daily basis.

Philadelphia hub

Philadelphia has become a major distribution hub for the substance. Crude coming to Philadelphia by rail, mostly from North Dakota and Minnesota, is transported along CSX’s rail lines to facilities in Southwest Philadelphia, where it is unloaded and transferred to ships at Philadelphia’s ports, as well as onto trucks. Philadelphia is in fact home to one of the major rail-to-truck networks in the United States.

It’s a major local industry, but one that goes largely unseen by ordinary residents—at least until recently.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a member of the Protect Philly Coalition, the group holding the protest, has long been a critic of hydraulic fracturing in general but says his concern over the oil coming into Philadelphia was piqued when the issue materialized literally in front of his eyes.

“I looked up, and I saw one of those trains of tanker cars passing right through the heart of the city.”

Quebec disaster

And it’s the “tanker cars” to which Waskow refers, called DOT-111s in the industry, that may pose the greatest threat to Philadelphia. They’re the same kind, and carrying the same substance, as those involved in the Quebec disaster and another explosion in Casselton, North Dakota.  Virtually all of the petroleum crude being transported around the United States by rail is being shipped in DOT-111s.

And many of those tank cars have been deemed unsafe for the transportation of flammable liquids, like petroleum crude oil, by government agencies.

In 2009, a train carrying denatured alcohol derailed in Cherry Valley, Illinois, killing one person, injuring several more and prompting evacuation of 600 residents in a half-mile radius. The accident prompted the National Transportation and Safety Bureau (NTSB) to release a report calling the tank cars fundamentally “inadequate” for the transport of hazardous, flammable materials.

The NTSB identified several flaws in the DOT-111’s design, including walls that are too thin and prone to puncturing, leading to what officials described in this case as a “catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.” The NTSB called for enhanced safety regulations.

But those changes applied only to new tank cars, manufactured after October 2011.

Old tank cars

Roughly half the fleet of DOT-111 tank cars still operating today are the old kind and are unlikely to have been retrofitted with those same safety enhancements added to newer trains, meaning they’re more prone to rupture in an accident.

And that includes many of the tank cars carrying petroleum crude oil, including those passing through Philadelphia, according to federal hazardous waste data reviewed by AxisPhilly.  According to our review, many of the trains carrying petroleum crude through Philadelphia, elsewhere in Pennsylvania and around the country are using tank cars manufactured to the outdated, “inadequate” standards used prior to 2011.

The data gives new weight to a question being asked in the wake of the explosions in Quebec and North Dakota by lawmakers, activists and ordinary residents across Pennsylvania: “Could it happen here?”

Our findings come from data collected by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which requires that any release of a hazardous material be documented and reported.  Among the data points collected by the PHMSA—not always, but in many cases—is the date when a tank car involved in a release of hazardous materials was manufactured.

Since petroleum crude oil first began to come to Philadelphia in large volumes by rail, starting mostly in 2013, there have been 41 reported hazardous releases in Pennsylvania. Twenty-five of those were reported in Philadelphia, while the oil was being unloaded at a terminal operated by a CSX subsidiary, TransFlo-Philadelphia, adjacent to CSX’s train yard off Oregon Avenue.

Small leaks

These incidents involved very small leaks and, it should be noted, represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of tank cars that have passed through the city without incident.

But they also show that at least some of those tank cars were manufactured prior to the 2011 standards—and that those incidents involved petroleum being found outside the container when it shouldn’t have been. The data shows that:

  •  Of 22 crude oil hazardous release incidents in Philadelphia for which manufacture dates were reported, 13 involved tank cars manufactured prior to 2011.

The cause of these incidents involved component failures that regulators have worried about in past reports on the DOT-111s, including loose and leaking dome covers and leaky valves.

The data further indicates that old, insufficient tank cars are in use across the state and indeed the country.

  • In Jefferson County—the Pennsylvania county with the next highest number of hazmat incidents after Philadelphia, none of the cars involved had been manufactured after 2011. In fact, all were reported to be manufactured in 1986. 
  • Of 135 incidents nationwide for which manufacture dates were reported, 118 involved tank cars manufactured before 2011.

These incidents, again, are often not serious by themselves. And officials from various parts of the rail industry are quick to point to rail’s generally high record for safety. Officials from the American Railroad Association, which supported higher standards for tank cars, point out that derailments and other accidents are at an all-time low.

Rail accidents

But that doesn’t mean that accidents don’t happen: in 2013 alone, there were more than 1,700 train accidents, including 1,264 derailments and 160 collisions, according to data maintained by the Federal Railroad Administration.

And while preventing these incidents is of course important, it’s also important—as NTSB officials emphasized in their report on the Cherry Valley disaster—that tank cars be built to withstand inevitable accidents.

That means that residents and local officials concerned about “oil trains” might want to direct their questions beyond the railroads themselves, since it’s not railroads like CSX, Norfolk South, who supply the cars carrying the petroleum.

And it’s not clear that Philadelphia officials have caught on to that nuance. In a hearing last month, Philadelphia’s City Council questioned officials from CSX, the railroad whose train derailed carrying crude over the Schuylkill River, about the state of the railroad’s infrastructure.

The questions were not without reason: aside from the recent derailment, residents have been complaining for years about the crumbling concrete viaduct on which CSX trains make their way to the company’s yard in deep South Philadelphia. CSX officials acknowledged at the hearing that repairs are needed and pledged a significant repair project for the viaduct, while simultaneously claiming that the crumbling concrete had not affected the rail’s safety.

But while the conditions of a given railroad’s tracks where they pass through communities are important—and largely protected from public review by laws favoring the railroads—infrastructure alone doesn’t solve the problems posed by older tank cars.

The Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, which is responsible for overseeing the city’s emergency response plans for hazardous waste incidents, has access to information about the hazardous contents of trains coming through the city, but it “does not track each train as it comes into or leaves the city, nor do we know when a [train] car was made,” according to a statement from administration spokesman Mark McDonald.

Officials from the tank car manufacturing industry insist that even their older cars are safe.

Built to federal standards

“To assert that these tank cars are somehow unsafe or that they are Pepsi Cola cans on wheels—I think that’s wrong,” says Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute. “The older cars were built to federal standards that were in place at the time they were built.”

At the same time, he acknowledges that his own industry saw changes were needed when they voluntarily agreed to the new, 2011 standards.

Federal officials from the National Transportation Safety Board had, in fact, called for the same changes to the same tank cars for years before that, with industry groups objecting and largely getting their way.

The American Railroad Association, a trade group representing large railroads, also endorsed the higher standards — the railroads, after all, don’t directly pay the cost of upgrades. Robert Sullivan, a spokesperson for CSX, told AxisPhilly in an email that “CSX supports strengthened tank car standards” — but did not address a direct question about whether CSX is currently transporting petroleum crude oil in the outdated models.

Since the 2011 standards were adopted voluntarily, manufacturers still aren’t required to retrofit all of their cars, and have retrofitted only about 15 percent of the total fleet carrying liquid flammable materials. Shippers of petroleum crude oil still aren’t required to use new or retrofitted cars.

How many of these cars are passing through which communities? What portion of the petroleum crude oil coming to Philadelphia is being carried in them? And what are the implications for Philadelphia and other major oil train destinations?

These are some of the questions that remain unanswered.

Follow Isaiah Thompson on Twitter.

Photo: Associated Press