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Derailments could pose a major risk to southwestern Pa.'s rivers, Pitt researchers say

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
In 2015, 13 freight cars derailed in Hazelwood, not far from where the Hot Metal Bridge crosses the Monongahela River. The freight train was empty and injured nobody.

University of Pittsburgh researchers say more than 75% of all train derailments in Southwestern Pennsylvania occur within 300 feet of the region’s major rivers.

Their data highlights a potential risk to the region’s aquatic habitats and drinking water, as well as to communities already facing socio-economic and environmental inequality.

According to the report, published by the Pittsburgh Water Collaboratory, 245 out of the 270 derailments in the region between 2011 and 2021 were in — or within a mile of — environmental justice (EJ) areas.

About 4 million Pennsylvanians live in EJ areas, which the state Department of Environmental Protection defines as any census tract where at least 20% of people live at or below the federal poverty line or at least 30% identify as a non-white minority.

“A lot of the communities that are most at risk from industry of all types generally are the ones that don't have a voice in these discussions,” said Jonathan Burgess, the Collaboratory’s director. "So, our goal was really to give them information as well so that they can advocate for themselves and have a seat at the table.”

Of the 270 derailments, 22% involved trains carrying hazardous material. A significant portion of those incidents occurred within EJ communities, according to the report.

Historically, railways tend to follow the natural path of the region’s waterways.

“[That’s where] you're going to find the travelers grades, the easiest access for moving freight — all of these things — next to streams and waterways,” Burgess said. “That’s why we put wagon trails next to the streams and rivers, that's why we put the rail lines there. There's always going to be that really strong linkage between river valleys and waterways and transportation.”

Urban activity is more likely near those waterways, too. But Burgess said the same rivers that trains run parallel to are the ones that supply the drinking water for the majority of the region’s population.

“So, the association between a rail accident and a potential threat to drinking water is high,” he said.

The report pointed to the derailment near Harmar last year that released chemicals into the Allegheny River, just upstream of where the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority pulls water to treat and distribute to its customers.

Some of the train’s cars leaked petroleum distillate, a kind of oil. Within a day, Norfolk Southern said the leak had been secured and that the tankers that had fallen in the water didn’t appear to be leaking.

Four nearby drinking water systems were notified of the accident, but none reported any issues with the river water in the days that followed.

Allegheny County Executive candidate Dave Fawcett has pointed to derailments like the one in Harmar as evidence to support moving all rail infrastructure off the county’s river banks entirely.

Fawcett’s platform includes a vision for a county-wide riverfront park, which he first proposed while on county council 20 years ago.

At a news conference following a derailment in the West Endearlier this month, fellow candidate Sara Innamorato expressed support for a similar vision.

“Every day these rail lines hamper our local government’s ability to build public riverfront parks and trails to connect us to one another and create physical barriers that prevent residents from accessing our public waterways,” she said.

The report called for further analysis of the regulations, oversight mechanisms and emergency response processes railways are subject to.

Burgess said federal legislation to place further restrictions on railways, like the DERAIL Act introduced by Rep. Chris DeLuzio and co-sponsored by Democrat Summer Lee, could benefit all communities facing this potential harm.

Jillian Forstadt