Your Environment Update for May 28

  • Blacklegged ticks are so small, they could be mistaken for a freckle. From left to right: The blacklegged tick larva, nymph, adult female and adult male. Photo: California Department of Public Health

May 28, 2015

In this week’s Environment Update, the state’s new rail expert gives us his take on the safety of Pennsylvania rail lines, a community near Pittsburgh sounds off about a proposed coal mine, and we look ahead to what could be a bad summer for ticks.

Derailment Raises Questions about Crude Oil and Passengers Trains Sharing Rails

Federal investigators continue to look at why an Amtrak train derailed this month in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. The passenger cars crashed a short distance from tank cars—the kind that commonly carry crude oil, ethanol and other explosive liquids.

Conrail says there wasn’t crude or ethanol in the cars, but Governor Tom Wolf told reporters the tank cars were “a cause of additional concern.” Wolf has now hired Allan Zarembski, a rail expert and professor at the University of Delaware, to assess the safety of Pennsylvania’s rail lines.

“There are locations in the state where passenger and freight do share,” Zarembski says. “But for the most part, the frequency of passenger train operations on freight routes in the state are relatively small—particularly on the crude oil routes.”

According to, 150 million gallons of highly flammable crude arrive in Philadelphia by train each week. The tracks run next to neighborhoods, homes and schools.

There are concerns that an oil train crash like the one in Québec in 2013, which killed 47 people and destroyed the town of Lac-Mégantic, would be even more disastrous in a large city like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.

Zarembski says a similar crash in Pennsylvania is unlikely.

“The Lac-Mégantic derailment was an extremely unusual combination of events. The possibility of that happening in eastern Pennsylvania or in the Philadelphia area is pretty remote, primarily because we’re not dealing with mountainous terrain here.”

In mountainous southwestern Pennsylvania, Zarembski says the increased use of hand brakes on trains could help avoid similar crashes.

New coal mining project may be coming to southwestern Pennsylvania

A Kentucky-based coal mining company wants to reopen an old underground mine beneath a rural section of Washington County in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Ramaco LLC may use a technique called retreat mining, which can cause the ground atop the mine to sink or cave in. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) says the company would not use this technique beneath houses or structures.

Though a small mine, it has sparked local opposition about traffic, air quality and water pollution. Some 1900 people delivered comments to the state opposing the mine.

The DEP is currently reviewing Ramaco’s permit application.

State officials say it could be a bad year for ticks

Summer is almost here, and state health officials are sounding the alarm about ticks. A recent study found that blacklegged ticks, the kind known to spread the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, have now been found in all 67 counties in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania leads the nation in reported cases of Lyme. An early symptom is a red rash around the bite that looks like a bullseye. Symptoms also include fever, muscle aches and joint pain.

The state recommends that people use repellents and wear protective clothing. After outdoor activities, always check for ticks and, if you find one, remove it.