PHILADELPHIA — Just a few years ago, the region’s refineries were on life support, hurt by high prices of oil imported from foreign countries. Now, they’re humming again with the daily deliveries of domestic crude in mile-long trains.
As one of the country’s largest destinations for crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region, Philadelphia illustrates both the benefits, and risks, of a massive volume of oil moving by rail.
“It’s a good marriage,” said Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, an industry group. “Ultimately, it will be good for the consumer.”
But even as the oil and the trains that bring it may have saved refineries and jobs, they’re testing the limits of the city’s infrastructure and emergency response capabilities.
In January, seven loaded tank cars derailed on the 128-year-old Schuylkill Arsenal Railroad Bridge over the Schuylkill River. Though no crude was spilled, one car dangled precariously over the river and Interstate 76. Investigators blamed it on faulty track maintenance.
“We always hear that things will never happen,” testified former Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a former firefighter and mayor of nearby Marcus Hook, Pa., at a hearing last month, “but things always happen.”
The city grew up around its rail network, so the only way to the refineries for trains is through town. Some rumble over a steel viaduct through the campuses of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Others snake through a tunnel under the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art and the steps made famous by Rocky Balboa.
One of the main routes to the sprawling refinery complex in South Philadelphia crosses a crumbling viaduct for several blocks through a residential neighborhood. Railroad officials say the 86-year-old viaduct is structurally sound, but residents are concerned about the chunks of concrete that regularly fall into the street.
“It may be perfectly safe, but the impression it gives just by looking at it is something else,” said Roy Blanchard, a longtime South Philadelphia resident knowledgeable about the railroads.
Robert Sullivan, a spokesman for CSX, which owns the structure and operates trains over it, said the viaduct was designed to accommodate heavy commodities, such as iron ore and coal, and the railroad is planning to improve it. It already has hired a contractor to begin removing loose sections of concrete.
While other major endpoints for oil trains, including Albany, N.Y., and towns in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest, have attempted to slow or stop the shipments because of environmental and safety concerns, Philadelphia largely has welcomed the boom.
State and local officials hailed the opening in October of a rail yard that now unloads two 120-car trains carrying 80,000 barrels of oil every day to feed the largest refinery complex on the East Coast. A partnership between Sunoco and the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, created Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which employs 1,000 workers.
Without Bakken oil to replace expensive imports, the refinery would have closed.
Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, flanked by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Rep. Robert Brady, both Democrats, called the revived operation “a symbol of the connection that exists between Pennsylvania’s expanding energy industry and the potential we have to achieve energy independence in North America.”
But it’s also created new challenges for emergency response agencies.
A series of fiery derailments involving Bakken crude oil since last summer has raised questions about whether government and industry fully accounted for the risks before railroads began hauling it. The worst killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Others in Alabama and North Dakota, while not fatal, drove home the need for new precautions.
“This crude is not the crude of old,” said Robert Full, chief deputy director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
Full was testifying before a state House of Representatives oversight hearing last month in nearby Eddystone, Pa., the site of a rail-to-barge facility set to open this month. It will unload two trainloads of crude oil a day by the end of the year.
Bob Andrews, a Texas entrepreneur and fire protection engineer, testified that Pennsylvania should consider developing a specific crude-by-rail response plan to protect communities and the investment they have in keeping the oil moving.
“The Philadelphia area is a good place to start,” he said.
Clifford Gilliam, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Fire Department, said the oil shipments don’t change emergency response procedures, but the department is preparing for the possibility of an event larger in size and scope than what it’s planned for in the past.
He said the department has a good working relationship with the railroads and refineries and “has the training and capability to handle hazmat incidents and, if warranted, join forces with other agencies.”
The rail operations, and risks, cross into Delaware and New Jersey. Norfolk Southern delivers a train every other day to a Sunoco terminal across the Delaware River in Westville, N.J., with plans to double the shipments later this year.
Getting the cars into the Westville facility requires repeat backup moves that block two four-lane highways on a track only feet from several homes.
The drawbridge the trains cross was completed in 1896. An $18.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation helped pay for repairs to the aging span in 2011, before the oil trains began rolling across it.
At Eddystone, south of Philadelphia International Airport, workers are putting the finishing touches on new tracks that will transfer 160,000 barrels of oil daily from trains to barges by the end of the year. The companies involved in the operations say they’ve accounted for the risks.
CSX reached an agreement with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency last month to give first responders access to the railroad’s shipment tracking system. Norfolk Southern, which plans to supply the Eddystone facility, intends to offer safety training.
Jack Galloway, president of Canopy Prospecting, one of the companies developing the Eddystone facility, assured lawmakers last month that it would be “top of the line,” equipped with containment units under the trains and floating barriers around the barges.
“We don’t think there’s any possibility of this oil getting away,” he said.