Environmental Justice and Oil Trains in Pennsylvania

This report by ForestEthics, ACTION United and PennEnvironment reveals that Philadelphia’s communities of color and low-income communities face disproportionate threats from oil train explosions and pollution when compared with white and higher-income communities.


PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, Action United and ForestEthics

Everyone should have access to clean air water and  soil, and to a healthy, safe, livable community. Un – fortunately, these rights are often denied to minority  and low-income communities, creating a disparate risk and  environmental injustice for Pennsylvanians. 

ACTION United, ForestEthics, and the PennEnvironment  Research & Policy Center used the U.S. Environmental Pro – tection Agency’s (EPA) newly published Environmental Justice methodology to investigate the disparate threat to environmental justice communities from trains carrying crude oil  through four Pennsylvania cities. In Philadelphia, Pittsburgh,  Harrisburg and Reading a disproportionate number of people living in environmental justice communities reside inside  the dangerous oil train blast zone. We conclude that oil train  routes contribute to environmental racism in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Department of Justice, Environmental  Justice Working Group defines environmental justice as:

[T]he fair treatment and meaningful involvement  of all people with respect to the identification  of environmental issues and the development,  implementation, and enforcement of environmental policies, regulations, and laws. Fair treatment means that no group of people – including  racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups – will  bear a disproportionate share of the negative  environmental impacts resulting from industrial,  municipal, and commercial activities or from the  execution of Federal, State and local programs  and policies. The attainment of environmental  justice requires the Pennsylvania Department of  Environmental Protection’s proactive and ongoing review of environmental and administrative programs and policies, identification of inequities and work to assure equal consideration and  protection.

In June 2015 EPA released EJSCREEN, a mapping and  screening tool that provides a “nationally consistent dataset  and approach for combining environmental and demographic indicators.”  ForestEthics used US EPA’s new method – ology, combined with oil train route information from the  rail industry and US Census data, to evaluate the disparate  threat from oil trains to the most vulnerable populations in  four Pennsylvania cities. The blast zone map, first compiled  and published by ForestEthics in 2014, combines oil train  routes with the recommended one-mile evacuation area in  the case of an oil train derailment and fire. 

Our results are presented in demographic maps of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Reading. For each urban  area we present two maps, one highlighting minority population data and one highlighting income and minority population data. EPA uses income and race, taken together, to identify potentially vulnerable populations. These are commonly recognized as environmental justice communities.

The US EPA EJSCREEN Demographic Index allows us to  evaluate U.S. Census block groups based on their potential vulnerability to environmental risk. Those areas in the 80-90 percentile, 90-95 percentile, and 95-99 percentile  compared to the entire US population are highlighted on the  maps. To summarize the information we compared the pop – ulations of the most vulnerable block groups (those in the  80-99 percentile) living inside the blast zone versus outside  the blast zone. In every case, a disproportionate number of  people living in those most vulnerable block groups—which  we describe as environmental justice communities based on  race and income—live inside blast zone. In addition, people  of color comprise a greater percentage of the population  inside the blast zone in each of the four cities.