I live in a crude oil train blast zone. I live within 1/2 mile of the CSX tracks in Hopewell Borough where a derailment and explosion could realistically happen. I’ve joked that I like to imagine that the trains, with their haunting and romantic echoing whistle, are full of good things for little boys and girls to eat and drink on the other side of the mountain, like the Little Engine That Could. But the train that travels through Mercer County, including Pennington and Hopewell Borough, along the CSX line, carries a variety of goods including highly explosive crude oil.
The risk is real. There were 113 incidents involving crude-by-rail mishaps occurred in 2013. The most devastating accident was in Lac Megantic, Quebec where 47 people died and much of the town was destroyed.
Last week, Hopewell Borough Council heard a presentation by Deputy Director of The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Tracy Carluccio, who provided an overview of crude oil transport, the potential dangers to the public and environment, and urged the Hopewell Borough council to adopt a resolution.
“Every day mile-long trains, some 100 cars or more, carry dangerous Bakken Shale crude oil through the Borough of Hopewell and the volumes are expanding,” said Carluccio. “We are at risk every day due to the danger of pollution, accidents and explosion from oil trains.” (For the nationwide map of CSX tracks, check out: CSX System Map)
Crude oil is highly flammable. “Federal agencies say Bakken crude oil has unusually high gas content, low flash point, a low boiling point and high vapor pressure, risking catastrophic fire that is difficult or impossible to extinguish,” Carluccio explained in her presentation.
The risk continues to expand. The line that goes through Hopewell Valley is heavily used by crude oil trains, according to Carluccio, since it is uniquely positioned to carry heavy weight. The CSX Trenton, the one traveling through Mercer County, is rated the second most in terms of traffic density, meaning how much traffic is on the line, and is rated at the heaviest weight capacity limits in the state.
Moreover, Carluccio explained, oil transport trends actually indicate continued expansion and, with oil traffic expected to expand, the issue of derailment gets even more serious. Without updates by New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) to its Freight Rail Strategic Plan or the New Jersey Statewide Comprehensive Statewide Freight Plan, state efforts do not reflect the increased crude-by-rail traffic and the resulting unique oil train needs, specific oil train safety and emergency response planning or infrastructure improvement plans needed for increased crude by rail trends. Carluccio insists that this leaves a gap in much needed freight planning.
“The tank cars are substandard and prone to explode when derailed. The National Transportation Safety Board found that DOT-111 tank cars, the most commonly used, puncture easily when derailed, often exploding,” said Carluccio. “The newer cars, CPC 1232s, have recently exploded as well, making it clear that no tank cars being used to carry Bakken crude today are safe.”
Unique emergency response is required for this type of derailment and explosion. And crude oil train schedules have not been made public information by the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management. Carluccio says, “Residents deserve to have access to all relevant information that will allow them to avoid high risk areas and prepare for an emergency response or evacuation to ensure the safety of their families and community.”
Carluccio requested that Hopewell Borough adopt a resolution that: 1) requests that the USDOT improve tank regulations; 2) supports federal legislation the requires training and equipment for local emergency response agencies and fire departments; 3) requests that the NJ Governor, NJDEP and other agencies to refrain from permitting projects that would expand capacity for fossil fuel transport until a safety assessment is completed by the state; 4) urges CSX and other railroad companies that operate rail lines adjacent to the Borough to limit routes, speeds, length of trains etc, install highest safety standard braking systems, and limit speeds to 8mph; and 5) requests that the New Jersey Emergency Agency and Mercer County Office of Emergency Management work together to fully disclose train schedules and routes to first responders and the public.
However, Hopewell Borough declined to adopt such a resolution, partly due to it having adopted a resolution earlier this year.
“We are very comfortable with the position we took in unison with the county and neighboring towns in January,” said Hopewell Borough Mayor Paul Anzano. “I think, as a borough, that we have done what I think is appropriate and we’re waiting to hear from our EMS people. If we learn of deficiencies, from their perspective, I would address that.” Mayor Anzano also said that he would be interested in learning more about the classification of crude oil and how it relates to the safety measures for tankers.