Shortly before 8 a.m. Thursday, a boom so loud it sounded “like a big truck hitting something, but different” jolted Joe Franz of Vandergrift.
Moments later, Franz, 83, learned just how different. Twenty-one Norfolk Southern rail cars hauling explosive propane gas and Canadian crude oil derailed from at least 100 more tankers, skipping the track along the Sherman Avenue section of the Westmoreland County city before crashing into MSI Corp., a specialty metals factory.
County Emergency Management spokesman Dan Stevens said only one tanker car leaked. Norfolk Southern estimated about 1,000 gallons of heavy crude spilled. It did not catch fire.
No residents or rail workers were hurt. The nearby Kiski River was not befouled, and authorities ordered no nearby evacuations.
The Vandergrift crash reignited a larger debate nationwide over the safety of the increasing amounts of oil being shipped by the nation’s railroads. Fiery freight disasters in Alabama, North Dakota and Canada in recent months have fueled those concerns.
In 2008, major rail companies hauled about 4,500 tanker car loads of crude, according to the Washington-based Association of American Railroads. Thanks to skyrocketing petroleum production in the Dakotas and Canada, the group estimated that trains transported more than 400,000 tanker cars of oil last year, many of them crossing Western Pennsylvania to reach refineries farther east.
“You’re going to be the ones dealing with the spills that are inevitable, and the public isn’t fully informed about the dangers. And a public that’s not informed is going to lead to dead firefighters, because they’re going to be the ones rushing to the scene,” said Fred Millar, an environmental organizer in Washington who is working with municipalities nationwide to stiffen local regulations and hike fees on oil haulers and the plants unloading the crude.
Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Holly Arthur strongly disagrees, telling the Tribune-Review that major freight carriers constantly plan for emergencies with first responders and share information daily about the most hazardous material shipments with community leaders nationwide. However, some deliveries are “security sensitive,” and that “information is not made widely available to the general public,” she said.
There was little chance of a catastrophe on Thursday, according to train and refinery officials contacted by the Trib. Although two of the derailed tankers carried lethal propane, neither leaked. The other 19 cars contained western Canadian tar sands oil bound for the NuStar Asphalt Refining plant in Paulsboro, N.J. They had passed through rail terminals in Chicago and Beaver County’s Conway Yard before going off the tracks in Vandergrift.
NuStar officials said the oil inside was a heavy form of bituminous crude that flows slowly, especially in cool weather, which explained why so little spilled. Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon said the semi-solid goo was so thick, crews could remove it with shovels.
“When the oil came into contact with the snow, it congealed and made it easier to contain. It was a saving grace from the weather,” said Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister.
That kind of oil is too sluggish to sluice through pipelines, so it’s shipped by rail. It’s heavier and far less volatile than Bakken shale crude from North Dakota, the petroleum that sparked infernos in other states.
A July 6 runaway train crash in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, for example, ruptured Bakken oil, incinerating much of the downtown and killing 47 people.
Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau in Washington said his agency dispatched five field agents from its Region 2 headquarters to Vandergrift “to identify the root cause of the accident,” a process that could take up to nine months.
Flatau said that a key detail for investigators was the type of rail car that derailed. That’s important because of the ongoing debate on Capitol Hill over the future of DOT-111-A tankers, which environmentalists like Millar say are poorly designed to withstand crashes.
A Senate hearing on the future of those tankers and other freight rail safety concerns had been scheduled for Thursday in Washington, but it was canceled by the winter storm blanketing much of the East Coast.
Washington also is debating the future of the proposed Keystone pipeline. Lighter or diluted forms of petroleum like the Bakken crude have been earmarked for shipment through the pipeline, designed to link oil fields in Alberta, Montana and North Dakota with refineries in Texas, Illinois and Nebraska.
Proponents say it will make jobs and push North America toward energy independence. Opponents contend it will hurt the environment and put citizens at risk of oil fires.