Oil Train Derails Outside of Pittsburgh

  • Crews attempt to clean up an oil train derailment in Vandergrift, Pa. Photo: Reid Frazier

February 14, 2014

Twenty-one cars from a train carrying Canadian crude oil and propane to the east coast derailed near Pittsburgh, in the latest in a string of oil train accidents.

Norfolk Southern officials said between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of thick Canadian crude leaked out of three cars that overturned on an eastbound train bound for New Jersey in Vandergrift, Pa. The train was carrying Canadian oil to an asphalt plant near Philadelphia.

Shortly before 8 a.m. Thursday, the train derailed and hit an industrial building in the small industrial town in Westmoreland County, 25 miles east of Pittsburgh. The building is owned by MSI Corporation, a metals processing firm.

There were no reported injuries. First responders set up a containment area for the spilled oil before it could get into the nearby Kiskiminetas River, said John Poister, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Though no crude made it into the river, public drinking water facilities downstream were also alerted.

The train was hauling 120 cars, including many tankers carrying oil and liquid propane. Also on the train were soda ash and food products. Dave Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said in a statement that most of the oil spilled in the company's parking lot. 

The sounds of the derailment echoed across the town of Vandergrift early Thursday.

Rob Smeltzer was sitting by his window, watching the trains roll by across the river from his house in North Vandergrift shortly before the derailment occurred.

“It was rolling, about normal speed,” Smeltzer says.  A few minutes later, he heard a loud noise.  “All a sudden, there was a whole lot of banging and they come to a halt in a hurry. I knew there was a problem.”

Chad Garner of Vandergrift said he was getting ready for work when he heard it.

“It sounded like a garbage truck bouncing around, coming down the street," he says.

His wife Deanna said when she first heard there was oil on the train, she thought of the river. The Kiskiminetas has been cleaned up from mine drainage and other industrial sources in recent years, she says.

“They’ve been spending the last several years trying to bring back the wildlife and the fish population.” 

It was the latest in a series of rail accidents involving crude oil transport. Many have called for greater scrutiny of crude oil shipping by rail.

A drilling boom fueled by hydraulic fracturing has the U.S. on course to be the world’s number one oil producer by 2015. Because of a shortage of pipelines, 10 percent of the country’s oil is now moved on rails. 

As crude-by-rail has increased, so have accidents. McClatchy newspapers reported that over 1 million gallons of crude oil were spilled by railcars in 2013, more than the previous 37 years combined.

  • In July, an accident in Quebec killed 47 people when an unattended oil train rolled into the town of Lac-Mégantic, derailed and exploded.
  • In November, a crude oil train exploded near Aliceville, Ala. 
  • In December, a dozen cars from an oil train exploded after the train collided with a derailed grain train in Casselton, N.D., prompting an evacuation of the town. 400,000 gallons of Bakken light sweet crude spilled.
  • In January, a rail car filled with crude oil derailed on a bridge in Philadelphia. The cars were left dangling on the bridge for days.

The Federal Railway Administration will conduct an investigation of the Vandergrift derailment.

Many of the explosions over the past year occured with trains carrying oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation. Federal officials have begun investigating whether that oil is more explosive than other types of oil.