More than 183,000 Pittsburgh residents — and 3.9 million Pennsylvanians — could be forced to leave their homes if a train carrying crude oil derailed nearby, according to a statewide study released Monday by a partnership of environmental nonprofits.
The report coincides with a second report from a local investigative journalism outlet also analyzing the number of Pennsylvanians that could be at risk in the event of an oil train accident.
“Unbeknownst to residents, community leaders and first responders, these trains are rumbling through our neighborhoods, putting thousands of Pennsylvanians at risk for death, injury and destruction,” said Stephen Riccardi, Western Pennsylvania Field Associate for PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, one of the groups involved in the research.
Mr. Riccardi stood beneath the Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge that spans the Allegheny River Downtown near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Despite the biting cold, the news conference to discuss the report was held there to highlight a place where crude oil-bearing trains travel through Pittsburgh.
The report’s findings come amid growing pressure on the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue more stringent federal regulations aimed at replacing tens of thousands of outdated tank cars. They also come about two weeks after a crude oil train on its way from North Dakota to a shipping depot derailed and exploded in West Virginia.
The study analyzed U.S. Census population data along railroad routes that could potentially carry crude oil, said Matt Kelso, manager of data and technology at FracTracker Alliance, an nonprofit based in Camp Hill that performed the data analysis. The groups counted people who lived within a half-mile of the passing trains — the distance at which an evacuation is typically recommended in the event of a disaster.
The interactive map, available on FracTracker’s website, allows users to zoom in on municipalities and ZIP codes in Pittsburgh to see how many residents live in that zone. The groups hoped the map would illuminate the potential hazards for those who live there. The report by PennEnvironment and FracTracker can be found at http://ow.ly/JQAC3
“I think it’s dangerous to not know where they are,” Mr. Kelso said, referring to the oil train routes.
Statewide, the number of people that the report found to be at risk generally mirrors overall population density. The amount of people living in Pittsburgh’s evacuation zones was second to Philadelphia, a city that has about 710,000 people living in an evacuation zone and encompasses 16 of the 25 ZIP codes deemed most at risk.
Pittsburgh was followed by Reading with about 70,000 residents who could be affected and Scranton with about 61,000 residents.
Local communities are “wholly unprepared,” the report argues, because residents and first responders are “largely unaware these trains are traveling through their cities.”
PublicSource, a Pittsburgh-based investigative journalism nonprofit and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news partner, released its own analysis Monday, which accounted only for routes that are known to carry crude oil. The FracTracker analysis showed a higher amount of people at risk because it included rail lines that may not be carrying significant amounts of crude oil.
PublicSource found 1.5 million people lived near rail lines on which more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil are moving, as reported by railroad companies to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
“The actual number of people affected in the state may be somewhere in between,” the figures presented by the two reports, the PublicSource article suggests.
The PublicSource report can be found at http://ow.ly/JQApj.
Rail accidents involving volatile crude oil have grabbed headlines as oil production in the Bakken Shale of North Dakota has soared since 2011. Production has grown by about 30 percent since the beginning of 2014, surpassing 1,300 barrels per day in February and projected to increase again in March, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Oil drillers in particular have relied on trains to ship their oil to refineries because North Dakota lacks sufficient pipeline capacity. Natural gas producers in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays don’t typically rely on rail.
David Pidgeon, spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the company shares the public’s concerns and has taken every precaution to ensure safe movement of hazardous materials. The routes taken by hazardous materials, he said, adhere to a special formula developed by railroad companies and federal regulators and “are among the best maintained routes in our network.”
Still, “somehow, someway, hazardous materials are going to have to, at times, make it into urban areas. We’re very cognizant of that,” Mr. Pidgeon said. While the government deliberates stricter regulations, the company has proactively advocated replacing the older cars, he said.
“We want the safest tank car moving on our routes,” he said.
Michael Huss, Pittsburgh’s deputy director of public safety, has publicly supported re-routing trains carrying hazardous materials around the city. He also wants to somehow make the product less explosive prior to putting it on rail, calling crude oil a “dangerous product” because “it has a higher volatility” than more refined products.
But that authority, he noted, lies outside of municipal control.
“Our hands are pretty much tied,” Mr. Huss said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimated last week that trains carrying crude oil or ethanol will derail 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and putting densely populated areas at risk.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf wrote on Friday to President Barack Obama, urging him to speed up the new federal regulations, which are currently being reviewed by the White House.
Daniel Moore: email@example.com, 412-263-2743. First Published March 2, 2015 2:17 PM