New report: Oil trains put over 3.9 million Pennsylvania residents living in the evacuation zone at risk for disaster

Media Contacts

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

On the heels of the February 16 oil train explosion in West Virginia, the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center and the FracTracker Alliance released a new study showing that over 3.9 million Pennsylvanians live within the potential evacuation zone for an oil train accident.  

The report and interact map, Danger Around the Bend: The Threat of Oil Trains in Pennsylvania, also comes on the heels of an analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation that predicts over the next two decades trains carrying crude oil or ethanol may derail 10 times each year.

“Unbeknownst to residents, community leaders, and first responders, these trains are rumbling through our neighborhoods, putting thousands of Pennsylvanians at risk for death, injury and destruction,” said David Masur, Executive Director for the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center.

This type of crude oil is fracked from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota, and then shipped via rail to points across the country.

Bakken crude is more flammable than traditional crude, meaning it is extremely dangerous to transport via rail.  In the past few years, production of Bakken crude oil has dramatically increased, resulting in greater quantities of this dangerous fuel being transported through our communities and across the nation.

This increase has led to more derailments, accidents, and disasters involving oil trains—including three derailments in Pennsylvania alone over the last two years. The worst oil train disaster took place in July, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded, leveling a quarter of the town and killing 47 people.

“We cannot wait for an accident to occur to act. We must be pro-active,” said Philadelphia City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown. “My motto is, “Prior Proper Planning Prevents a Poor Performance,” so my ask is “show me your plan” to ensure the safety of our citizens. I am therefore proud to stand with Penn Environment and countless other organizations and community groups in calling for greater transparency and oversight of oil trains. We need to act now so Philadelphia does not fall victim to the same type of catastrophe that occurred in West Virginia. I stand with Governor Wolf, Senator Casey in calling on the Federal Government to implement stroger safety standards.”

“In light of oil train disasters around the United States and oil train derailments in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it is imperative that we immediately address concerns about the safety, reliability, and transparency of our oil transportation systems,” said State Senator Daylin Leach.

Bakken oil train routes often travel through high-density cities and neighborhoods, increasing the risk of a catastrophic accident for Pennsylvania’s residents. PennEnvironment and FracTracker’s findings include:

  • Over 3.9 million Pennsylvania residents live within the possible evacuation zone.
  • These trains travel near homes, schools, and day cares, putting Pennsylvania’s youngest residents at risk. All told, more than 860,000 Pennsylvania children under the age of 18 live within the ½ mile potential evacuation zone for an oil train accident.
  • Philadelphia County has the highest at-risk population—Almost 710,000 people live within the half-mile evacuation zone. These areas include neighborhoods from the suburbs to Center City. 
  • 16 of the 25 zip codes with the most people at risk—the top percentile in the state—are located in the city of Philadelphia.
  • The top five Pennsylvania cities with the most residents at risk are: Philadelphia (709869, residents), Pittsburgh (183,456 residents), Reading (70,012 residents), Scranton (61,004 residents), and Erie (over 51,058 residents).

In conjunction with this report, FracTracker Alliance is launching a new interactive online map, which allows the user to search for their home or neighborhood to see how close they live to a possible evacuation zone.

“FracTracker is pleased to work with PennEnvironment to examine the populations and places at risk from oil train accidents. We hope that this report underscores the scale of this problem and informs measures to reduce the dangers,” said Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance Director.

Community leaders, first responders, and concerned citizens joined PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center to call upon President Obama to pass stronger protections and regulations around oil trains passing through our communities. PennEnvironment also commended both Governor Wolf and Senator Casey for speaking out on the importance of national standards to protect our communities from the threat of oil trains.

“In order to protect the Lackawanna River, the dozens of species of fish and wildlife that live in and along the Lackawanna, the hundreds of anglers who fish the river, the thousands of runners and bicyclists who use the adjacent Lackawanna River Heritage Trail and the tens of thousands of local residents living near our rail lines, we need to be more proactive about preventing another oil train disaster,” said Bernie McGurl, Executive Director, Lackawanna River Corridor Association. 

Despite the threat these oil trains pose to Pennsylvania’s residents, the public is often times completely unaware that these trains are rumbling through their communities. This leaves the public and first responders woefully unprepared, should disaster strike. This issue, coupled with poor infrastructure and safety regulations poses an extreme threat to residents.

PennEnvironment calls on state and federal officials to implement the following policies as soon as possible:

  1. Increasing the public and first responders’ right to know about trains coming through their communities;
  2. Rerouting trains away from all of the state’s densely populated areas;
  3. A greater level of inspections and oversight;
  4. Ensuring train companies are paying the true cost of shipping dangerous Bakken oil across the nation, like proper insurance policies to cover the cost of an oil train disaster and safety violation fines;
  5. Improving and updating America’s ailing rail infrastructure;

“The disasters that have already happened throughout North America, the recent oil train explosion in West Virginia, and the near misses here in Pennsylvania show that time is of the essence. We need to act now to protect local residents and first responders from the growing threat of oil trains, and move towards a clean energy future” said Masur.

This data was compiled by FracTracker Alliance, who determined the population estimates of residents living within a half mile of the freight lines where these trains could travel in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

staff | TPIN

Our wild planet is calling on you this Earth Day

From buzzing bees to howling wolves, and from ancient forests to sprawling coastlines, our natural world is a gift that keeps on giving. Will you donate today to help keep it that way?