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LNG in PA Blog #2: Bomb Trains Through Pennsylvania

by Megan Rulli, Legal Intern

This is the second installment of the LNG in PA blog series. In this blog, we’ll discuss the dangers posed by the transportation of LNG across Pennsylvania. If you missed it, please check out our first blog, What is Liquefied Natural Gas?  

In the first blog, we explained that Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) reduces the volume of natural gas by a factor of 600, making it possible to transport large volumes over long distances.

Traditionally, LNG has travelled over oceans by tanker, a voyage that by definition is remote. LNG was considered too dangerous for large scale rail transport and was banned in the US without a special permit. That all changed this summer. A new rule from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) allows dangerous LNG trains to barrel through towns and cities in Pennsylvania without warning and without increased safety measures. 

Bomb Trains

Trains that transport hazardous and highly flammable materials like LNG have the notorious label of “bomb trains.” The energy contained in the cars is enough to create explosions on par with actual bombs. The danger of bomb trains comes from accidents like derailments or maintenance issues like valve malfunctions. Life-threatening risks of LNG trains are BLEVE, RPT, fire, asphyxiation, and cryogenic burns. These bomb trains run the same lines through our Pennsylvania towns as any other train and blow through towns with no warning. They are accidents waiting to happen.

Unexpected Explosions

BLEVE stands for Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. A BLEVE occurs when equipment malfunctions, allowing heat into the LNG container. As the LNG heats up it vaporizes and becomes gasand 600 times bigger. If this process continues, the volume of the tank can no longer hold the gas. The pressurized LNG explodes, creating a blast wave that destroys the container, turning it into shrapnel in the air. The spilled LNG pools in vapor clouds as it continues to evaporate. These vapor clouds can ignite and catch on fire upon contact with an ignition source. A 2013 BLEVE caused by a crude oil train derailment in the heart of a town in Quebec, Canada, tragically killed 47 people.   

RPT, Rapid Phase Transition, is a risk when LNG unexpectedly spills onto water. The spilled LNG both evaporates and spills on top of the water. RPT is a flameless “vapor explosion” caused by the “abrupt and simultaneous evaporation of a large amount of LNG. Since gas takes up a lot more space than liquid, a sudden transition will appear explosive.” The force from this “vapor explosion” can injure people and property nearby.

Fires That Can’t Be Put Out

Technically, and as the LNG industry loves to point out, LNG is not flammable. But, LNG is just liquefied natural gas, which we all know is flammable. LNG evaporates at the introduction of any heat, such as a leak, and becomes highly flammable natural gas. Large leaks create vapor clouds that spread over the ground.  

If a vapor cloud comes into contact with an ignition source before it evaporates it can catch fire. An LNG fire “burns far more hotly and rapidly than oil or gasoline fires. It cannot be extinguished.”  Until all of the LNG in the cloud burns, the fire won’t go out, and it can’t be put out with water. The chances of fire increase if the vapor cloud is trapped in a confined area, slowing evaporation.  (Remember that evaporation means the potent greenhouse gas methane is released directly into the atmosphere). 

In the case of a 2014 accident in Plymouth, Washington, a fire caused an explosion at an LNG storage facility, injuring 5 workers. Because of the danger, emergency responders were unable to enter the facility for hours, until the LNG entirely leaked out of the damaged storage container. All residents within two miles of the storage facility were evacuated for their safety.