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Records reveal extent of crude oil traffic on Pennsylvania railways

As many as 75 trains carrying at least 1 million gallons of crude oil pass through Pennsylvania each week, with the heaviest volumes moving through the eastern part of the state, according to new records released by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

The Norfolk Southern railroad runs between 30 and 65 trains across four routes each week through Allegheny County, toward refineries in Philadelphia, according to company records.

In Westmoreland County, Norfolk Southern has between 16 and 55 trains each week running along three routes.

It was along one of those routes that a February derailment in Vandergrift helped prompt the U.S. Department of Transportation to propose more stringent rules regarding transportation of flammable crude oil by rail.

Norfolk Southern also has single routes that carry between 14 and 25 through Armstrong County and between eight and 15 trains through Butler County.

Another railroad, CSX, runs between two and 10 trains across two routes through Allegheny County and between one and five across a single track in Westmoreland County, according to company records.

Norfolk Southern’s Vandergrift derailment was one of several major accidents involving trains carrying crude oil in Pennsylvania this year. In that accident, 21 rail cars hauling propane gas and Canadian crude oil derailed close to the Kiski River, skipping the track and crashing into the MSI metals factory.

That spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil. No one was injured, but the crash highlighted safety issues of transporting crude oil.

In Quebec, a July 6 crash ruptured takers carrying crude Bakken oil, a more volatile substance, killing 47 people and incinerating much of a small town.

Since the accidents, the federal Department of Transportation mandated new track safety standards, which CSX and Norfolk say they’ve embraced. Federal regulators instituted more frequent track inspections, more advanced breaking systems, lower speed limits in urban areas and track-side wheel bearing detectors.

Despite the derailments, some rail companies argue that there’s little risk associated with transporting crude by train.

“Regardless of how many trains there are moving through Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, I think it’s important for people to know hauling crude for train by Norfolk networks is safe and it’s getting safer,” said Dave Pidgeon, spokesman for Norfolk Southern.

Related: Disclosures from railroads on crude oil to be made public

Whether that’s the case, however, remains to be seen.

The amount of crude oil shipped by railroads has continued to increase, escalating safety concerns along with it.

In the months following the derailment of rail cars carrying crude oil, including Vandergrift’s, federal regulators, the rail industry and local emergency responders say they’ve come together to better share information and put new safety measures in place and are working to update railcars and better monitor the railways on which they run.

The number of daily crude oil rail shipments in the United States has continued to climb, from 800,000 barrels a day in 2012 to 1.4 million in 2014, according to the Energy Policy Research Foundation, based in Washington. Of the crude oil produced by the Bakken Basin in North Dakota, 66 percent is shipped to other parts of the country by train, according to the group.

Both Norfolk Southern and CSX have been helpful 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 spokesman with the agency.

“That makes a huge different in your ability to respond to any kind of situation,” he said. “That’s way more significant than what we have right now.”

Norfolk Southern, based in Virginia, operates about 20,000 route miles in 22 states. CSX is based in Florida and operates 21,000 route miles of track in 23 states.

Critics call for safety

Despite strides in safety the industry and regulators say they’re making, critics want to see a more comprehensive safety plan and full disclosure of train lines carrying crude.

“We need full disclosure. We need monitoring on what’s being carried where, when,” said Robert Gardner, campaign director for the Beyond Natural Gas campaign with the Sierra Club in Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, these train routes and schedules are kept secret. And that leaves us in the dark about what’s coming to our cities.”

Pending federal legislation calls for a phasing out of the DOT-111 tankers, which currently carry liquid along rails, and the implementation of new tank car design standards. Other legislation would pay for for more rail and hazardous material inspectors and require operators to be two-man crews.

Kevin J. Lindemer, an energy industry analyst with IHS in Boston, said crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota is in demand from refineries on the East and West coasts because it’s less expensive than the imported crude on which those refineries used to rely.

Several Philadelphia-area refineries, which were sold or shuttered a few years ago, are more profitable thanks to Bakken crude, Lindemer said. “They’re doing better. They have a lower crude oil cost,” he said.

Companies fought release

The transport records release comes after a dispute between the state’s Office of Open Records, Norfolk Southern and CSX about whether the records should remain confidential.

Earlier this month, the state’s Office of Open Records ordered that the records be released, five months after the federal government asked rail companies to hand over information on interstate shipments of potentially explosive crude oil.

Norfolk and CSX have said that 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.”

Angell, the PEMA spokesman, said Thursday the state notified the companies that they had until Wednesday to appeal the decision to release the records, but none did.

“They had their opportunity to seek an injunction to prevent us from doing that, but they didn’t do that so we just released it,” he said.

The agency agreed to sign confidentiality agreements when it received the company’s crude oil transport records as a courtesy, he said.

“If they tell us if it’s proprietary, then who are we to say that it’s not? We will let them have their day in court and make that argument.”

 

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