Saying a disaster was narrowly averted when a train carrying crude oil derailed in Philadelphia on Monday, several groups and a candidate for governor are calling for tighter controls or an outright stop to the shipments.
The groups and Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hanger, a former state secretary of environmental protection, cited recent incidents in which trains hauling crude oil exploded after crashing or derailing.
"We came within a hair's breadth of a calamity in Philadelphia," said Mr. Hanger, who also served on the Public Utility Commission.
Separately from Mr. Hanger, several environmental and religious groups from the city on Tuesday called for a halt to what one leader called "oil bomb" trains.
Seven cars of a 101-car freight train left the tracks on a bridge over the Schuylkill River and the Schuylkill Expressway, forcing the closure of the busy highway for a time. The incident left an oil tanker and hopper car leaning sideways over the side of the bridge.
CSX Railroad said six of the seven derailed cars were carrying crude oil.
It was the latest in a recent spate of incidents involving trains hauling crude oil, much of it drawn from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana.
In July, a runaway oil train exploded in Canada, killing 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
On Dec. 30, an oil train collided with a derailed car from another train outside Casselton, N.D. The crash spilled more than 400,000 gallons of oil, generated a fireball and forced the evacuation of 1,400 people within a 5-mile radius.
In November, an oil train derailed in rural Alabama and burst into flames that took several days to extinguish.
Crude oil trains pass through Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, but railroad and government officials have been tight-lipped about the frequency and routes of such shipments.
The Kansas City Star reported Monday that more crude oil was spilled in U.S. train incidents last year than in the nearly 40 years that preceded it.
Using data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the newspaper said more than 1.15 million gallons were spilled in 2013, compared with 800,000 gallons spilled for the years 1975-2012.
"I'm greatly concerned about the public safety of Pennsylvanians," Mr. Hanger said. "It's beyond doubt that the regulation of trains in Pennsylvania is too lax."
Mr. Hanger urged Gov. Tom Corbett to convene an emergency meeting of state and municipal officials, railroad companies, emergency response personnel and petroleum industry representatives; increase inspections of rail lines that carry crude oil; reduce speed limits for trains hauling crude; require all shipments to be in puncture-resistant tanker cars; and impose a fee on shipments to raise money for emergency preparedness and response.
"Right now, a particularly volatile type of crude oil from North Dakota is being shipped by train in tanker cars that are not safe enough to prevent catastrophic explosions like those that devastated towns in Canada," he said. "This hazard has even the oil industry concerned. The American Petroleum Institute actually is urgently demanding stronger regulation of crude transport."
Mr. Corbett's spokesman, Jay Pagni, said the governor "does take the safety of the shale oil and gas industry very seriously." He said he knew of no immediate action by the governor in the wake of the Philadelphia incident.
In Philadelphia, the groups Protecting Our Waters, Clean Air Council, Philadelphia Interfaith Power and Light, the Catskill Mountainkeeper, and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy called for halting trains shipments of fracked oil and gas.
"This derailment, just blocks from my Philadelphia home of 24 years, is truly terrifying because ... other recent derailments of this type of shale oil and gas train have erupted into fireballs, including the one that incinerated 15 acres of downtown Lac-Megantic and killed 47 people in that small town," said Iris Marie Bloom, director of the nonprofit Protecting Our Waters.
"Human life is worth more than oil and gas, which is changing our climate and harming the health of residents in the increasingly extreme 'sacrifice zones' for fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure, including risky transportation. These 'oil bomb' trains are putting lives at risk in urban and rural areas alike," she said.
"This could have been catastrophic," said Wes Gillingham, program director for the Catskill Mountainkeeper, another environmental group. "The train could have exploded onto a busy highway, spewing the toxic contents directly into the Schuylkill River which flows into the Delaware River."
CSX in July declined to give details about how much crude oil it ships through Pittsburgh, saying specific information about shipments of regulated materials is given only to emergency response agencies who request it.
"As a common carrier, CSX has an obligation to provide transportation to any shipper who tenders freight in containers or rail cars that meet federal specifications," spokesman Bob Sullivan said at the time.
Allegheny County confirmed that crude oil is on a list of chemicals that the railroad carries through Pittsburgh but declined to elaborate.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.