Vandergrift's 10,000-gallon oil spill among nation's worst in recent years
The federal government recently ranked the train derailment in Vandergrift in February that spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil as one of the 14 worst spills over the past eight years nationwide.
Additionally, preliminary estimates of the spillage were woefully short as government records now show that close to 10,000 gallons of heavy crude oil was released — twice the amount initially reported.
The amounts of crude oil transported these days and the danger in doing so have been increasing dramatically. Of the greatest concern is Bakken shale crude, which can be explosive.
Last July, a runaway train crash in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, involving Bakken oil, incinerated much of the downtown, killing 47 people.
The train in which 21 railroad cars derailed in Vandergrift was carrying a far less volatile form of crude.
The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration determined the Vandergrift derailment to be the 14th most significant involving crude oil or ethanol in the past eight years. The most recent seven major derailments occurred within the past 11 months, and all involved crude oil.
Although no one was injured and there were no explosions in Vandergrift, the safety issues are the same ones currently being debated by the federal government, industry and activists:
• The three railroad cars that released heavy crude oil and butane in Vandergrift were of the controversial variety known as DOT-111, according to Norfolk Southern. The railroad did not own those tankers, according to a spokesman. Critics dub these old-style tankers as flimsy as soda cans.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an advisory urging industry to voluntarily use sturdier tankers for Bakken crude oil transportation.
• The federal government issued an emergency order in early May requiring railroads to alert state emergency agencies about large Bakken crude shipments traveling through local communities. Shipping of crude has become widespread: In 2008, major rail companies hauled about 4,500 tanker carloads of crude, according to the Washington-based Association of American Railroads.
Because of 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.
• Environmentalists as well as industry experts complain that the federal government is not doing enough quickly enough to increase safety.
The Vandergrift derailment
In the Vandergrift derailment, 21 of the 130 railroad cars jumped the track just before 8 a.m. on Feb. 13 in an area between the Kiski River and the Sherman Avenue neighborhood.
One of the derailed tanker cars slammed into a business and three others broke open, leaking thousands of gallons of oil. An undisclosed amount of contaminated soil had to be removed from the site, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
However, major damage was averted. The crude oil was not of the Bakken variety and not easily combustible. The spillage didn't foul the nearby Kiski River. Residents did not have to be evacuated. The town was spared.
Final reports on the cleanup from DEP and the cause of the derailment are expected to be released within the month.
“We had a lot of things in our favor that day,” said Dan Stevens, spokesman for Westmoreland County Emergency Management.
“We had the wind blowing in a direction that was not affecting homes and it was 17 degrees,” he said.
The cold weather thickened the crude oil, further slowing any complications from the oil.
“If it would have been July 4, things could have been different,” he said.
Initial estimates shortly after the derailment, originally pegged that spillage at more than 1,000 gallons. As the day went on, that figure jumped to 4,500 gallons.
But the figure of almost 10,000 gallons was not released until it was referenced in a report earlier this year from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Norfolk Southern, which provided the estimates, did the best that it could at the time, according to Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidgeon.
“When you are dealing with hazardous materials, you don't just rush in,” he said. The tanker cars don't have windows, and emergency responders don't easily know how much exactly had been discharged.
“It takes a long time to unload material from derailed cars,” he said. And when responders can assess all of the derailed cars, that's when the railroad is better able to calculate the spillage, he said.
John Poister, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, noted that by the time a more accurate figure for the spillage was available, there weren't follow-up media reports.
Although, the federal Department of Transportation issued a voluntary request for shippers to use sturdier tankers than the DOT-111, many are not satisfied.
Even some railroads aren't satisfied.
The tank car safety requirements are set by two agencies, the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Association of American Railroads Tank Car Committee.
“That committee has for many years pushed for stricter standards for cars than those set by PHMSA,” said Pidgeon.
Last November, the Association of American Railroads urged U.S. Department of Transportation's hazmat administration to increase federal tank car safety by requiring that all tank cars used to transport flammable liquids be built to a higher standard.
It also is calling for all existing cars to be retrofitted to this higher standard or phased out of flammable service, according to the Association of American Railroads website.
But the fear of explosion shouldn't be the only incentive, according to activists.
“We've seen the spills happen with these kinds of rail cars,” said Joanne Kilgour, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club.
“The spill in Vandergrift — 10,000 gallon is still significant,” she said.
“Even though there wasn't an explosion, it shouldn't have required an explosion and the loss of the life to retire outdated rail cars,” she said.
The recent requirement for notification of the shipping of Bakken crude is good for awareness but it isn't going to change much, according to Stevens.
“If a train derails, it derails. What are you going to do? It doesn't matter what is hauling,” Stevens said. “At the county level, our guys prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Trib's Carl Prine contributed to this report.