After W. Virginia oil explosion, fears linger in Philly

With clean-up efforts still ongoing a day after trains carrying tankers of crude oil exploded in a West Virginia derailment, local concerns have heightened over similar tankers that run crude and other substances daily through Philadelphia.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“These trains are rolling through Philadelphia every single day and exposing this city to the kind of disaster that has just been experienced yesterday along the Kanawha River,” she said. “That could be the Delaware. That could be the Schuylkill.”

Foremost in Carluccio’s mind is the January 2014 incident in which a CSX train experienced a partial derailment while crossing the 25th Street Viaduct, leaving five cars at the end of the train dangling over the Schuylkill River. No cars fell in the river.

Since that accident, CSX, which technically owns the bridges (CSX is merged with Conrail), and is regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), has stepped up communications with the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, said OEM executive director Samantha Phillips.

The OEM has real-time access to CSX’s train-tracking system, which has information on locations and the materials that they carry, she said.

Additionally, after the partial derailment last year, OEM and CSX ran crude oil derailment scenario drills to evaluate preparedness, she said.

“I’m glad people are seeing what’s happening with crude oil and waking up and asking some questions about how prepared they are,” she said.

Phillips noted that after complaints that debris was falling off the 25th Street Viaduct that CSX undertook repairs there. The FRA has approved the bridge, which passes over the Schuylkill from West Philly and heads down through South Philly passing over buildings and homes.

But JG McMillan, secretary of the West Passayunk Neighbors Association, said that locals still have deep concerns about the safety of the bridge.

“I don’t know if they’ve done anything really to repair or replace anything structurally integral,” he said of CSX.

“How can we institute better controls so that accident rates will go down and South Philadelphia doesn’t have to live under this cloud of possible derailment or catastrophe?”

CSX did not respond to a request for comment on the status of operations in Philly.

However a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation said they have “aggressively” investigated rail safety over the last 18 months.

“DOT is finalizing a comprehensive rulemaking on high hazard flammable materials, including crude oil,” the spokesperson said. “The tank car rule is a top priority for this Department; we have been fully engaged and will continue to place our full attention on getting a final rule in place as quickly as possible and ensure it is done right. Yesterday’s derailment serves as yet another reminder of the urgency of the issue at hand.”

The cause of the derailment and explosions in West Virginia had not yet been determined by FRA investigators as of press-time.

As of 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, the FRA confirmed that oil tankers were still burning. About 2,500 residents of Adena Village, near the derailment, were evacuated.

No fatalities were reported and only one person reported trouble breathing.

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