A rash of oil train derailments, spills and explosions in recent years has put a spotlight on the silent risks of transporting fossil fuels. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians live within the likely evacuation zone of a potential oil train accident. But according to a new study from the group PennEnvironment, people of color and low-income communities are shouldering a larger share of the risk. Recently, the Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with PennEnvironment’s Zoë Cina-Sklar to dig into some of the findings in the new study and what can be done about the problem.
The Allegheny Front: So tell us about some of the more striking findings in this report?
Zoë Cina-Sklar: I would say some of the most striking findings are in Pittsburgh. If you are not white, you are more than twice as likely to live in the oil train blast zone than if you are white. And if you are also living in a low-income community and are a person of color, then you are over three times as likely to live in that blast zone than if you are white. In addition, 70 percent of people who live in environmental justice communities — as classified by the EPA — are within the oil train blast zone. That’s compared to about 22 percent of white people.
AF: And explosions are a worst-case scenario of an oil train accident. But even if there isn’t an explosion, you say crude oil trains contribute to conditions that already impact these communities.
ZCS: For sure. These trains are coming through neighborhoods every day across our state and in our largest cities. So they are idling, and as they do, they emit volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog. They also create noise in the neighborhood. I spoke to a woman in Philadelphia who says that the noise of trains moving through and stopping often wakes her up in the evenings. So that is a very small-scale, but very real, negative impact. And that is also coupled with the stress of knowing that these trains carry incredibly explosive, incredibly dangerous crude oil that could explode and end their lives at any moment.
AF: And so in light of these findings, what are you calling for?
ZCS: First, we are calling for there to be community meetings with the offices of emergency management in these cities to educate the public about the trains that are coming through their communities; and to tell community members when they’re coming, what they’re carrying and what the evacuation plan is in the case of an emergency. But there are small steps and big steps. Certain small steps include requiring lower speed limits; working to fix the aging infrastructure and bridges over which these trains are traveling; requiring two conductors; phasing out the old and dangerous trains; and requiring more inspections of the trains and the rails. And I think a bigger step would be re-routing trains around these heavily populated areas. It is a huge risk to have these trains going straight through downtowns. And it’s a risk that, in my view, really cannot be mitigated. And long-term, I would say the appropriate conclusion would be that these trains are never safe to communities and should be banned. I think the reality that the negative impacts of oil trains are so unequal should be another reason for swift and determined action by officials at all levels of government.
AF: I think a lot of people would be surprised by these findings. Were you surprised by what you found?
ZCS: More than surprising, these findings were depressing to me. Already, we are having many conversations as a nation around the reality of racism today in our country. And this is a story I think that ties into stories in Flint, Michigan and ties into stories across the country, where the negative impacts of environmental contamination and of industrial processes are a heavy burden on communities of color.