Every year, thousands of hazardous materials move through or are stored in Pennsylvania. They may be piled up close to your house, rumbling through your neighborhood on a railcar or transported in a semi-truck you pass on the highway.
We don’t often think of these chemicals — until there’s an accident. In January and February, a deluge of events has reminded us of the consequences of chemical spills.
The most recent scare came when a train of cars carrying crude oil derailed last week in Westmoreland County. There were no injuries. However, when several thousand gallons of crude oil spilled, it became the largest such spill in the state since 1990, according to federal records.
Near Philadelphia, there have been a series of accidents involving crude oil since the beginning of the year. Seven cars of a 101-car train carrying crude oil derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill River, nearly spilling its contents. And broken pipes at two industrial complex spilled more than 1,000 gallons of the slick black liquid, soiling the Delaware River.
It was an incident in West Virginia that grabbed the attention of the nation in January, when a little known chemical used to wash coal spoiled the drinking water for more than 300,000 residents. And in early February a spill of more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry — sludge that’s a byproduct of coal mining — polluted another West Virginia waterway.
These incidents have left the public questioning the safety of storing and transporting such materials and reminded them that hazardous-material spills have repercussions beyond the immediate impact. They can cause deaths, injuries, environmental damage, evacuations and slowed transportation for travelers. The cleanup costs can be in the millions of dollars for the companies transporting the materials.
To better understand the history of hazardous-materials spills in Pennsylvania, PublicSource analyzed nearly 40,000 federal records. The records were U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reports of unintentional hazardous-materials incidents from January 1971 to September 2013. These occurred during transportation on highways, railroads, planes and waterways.
Pennsylvania had more than 12,500 events since 2000, the fifth-highest number of hazardous-materials incidents in the nation. That’s an average of 76 incidents per month.
However, only about two percent of those incidents were classified as serious. Nationally, the average is about three percent. Serious incidents include events that result in death or major injuries, the evacuation of at least 25 people or the release of a large quantity of hazardous material.
Cleaning up the incidents is costly. Since 2000, cleanup costs and property damage in Pennsylvania have cost more than $34 million; 50 incidents led to environmental damage, and 86 people were injured and one person died because of a hazardous-material spill, according to federal records. There were 59 events that caused evacuations and 96 major transportation arteries were closed.
Transporters of hazardous materials are required to submit reports of spills to the federal government. The government uses the data to track unsafe transporters and repeat offenders and to issue enforcement actions, according to Joe Delcambre, a spokesman for the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which collects the data.
The majority of the spills in the records PublicSource looked at occurred on highways. This likely means that more hazardous materials are transported by truck than by other means.
Materials include familiar items like paint and gasoline, as well as dangerous industrial chemicals including anhydrous ammonia, as well as corrosive and radioactive materials.
The Pennsylvania incident that caused the largest evacuation since 2000 occurred in 2009 in Wind Gap, Pa., in Northampton County. There, 5,000 were evacuated when a tanker carrying anhydrous hydrogen fluoride swerved to avoid several deer and overturned, according to the DOT’s records and media reports.
The chemical is one of the strongest acids known, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After the tanker flipped, emergency crews discovered liquid dripping from the tanker’s valves and piping.
There were no injuries.
Although the federal data seems robust, it isn’t complete. While carriers are required by law to report the incidents, not all of them do.
“We try to trace accidents and incidents as best we can,” said Delcambre, the spokesman for the PHMSA.
But “it’s not 100 percent,” he said.
The agency now tracks unreported hazardous-materials spills by researching news articles and sifting through logs from emergency-response agencies. It’s been at the effort since 2005.
From 2006 to 2008, hazardous-materials transporters in the United States failed to report 1,199 serious incidents to the federal government, according to a 2009 USA Today news investigation, which looked at the federal database of unreported spills.
The unreported-spills data is not readily available on the department’s website for recent years.
No agency tracks all shipments
In Pennsylvania, the transportation of hazardous materials is regulated by several state agencies, including the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
However, officials said that no agency they are aware of tracks the number of shipments of all hazardous materials in the state. That makes it difficult to say whether the rate of incidents is increasing.
Sofia Plagakis, a policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, a Washington research organization that advocates for better health and safety standards, said that knowing what’s out on the roads or on trains could better prepare first responders and residents in case of an accident.
“Greater transparency is definitely needed regarding hazardous-waste shipments, especially if they are running through communities,” she said.
“The public needs to know,” said Plagakis.
Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is part of a collaboration led by the Investigative News Network, of which PublicSource is a member. INN and Investigative Reporters and Editors analyzed more than half a million records from the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of a national look at the impacts of hazardous-materials spills during the last 40 years.