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Living in the Blast Zone: Fracking's Bomb Trains

In March of this year, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) banned the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within the watershed. While this vote is a victory, it did not end all threats posed by the industry to the basin. To that end, the DRBC has not yet finalized rules on the transport of fracking wastewater through the region, as well as the withdrawal of water from the basin for the purpose of fracking in the Marcellus Shale region.

While the issue of fracking in the basin is still unsettled, the fracking industry is still thinking of new ways to threaten the health of our waterways and communities. Allow me to introduce you to bomb trains.

Currently, there are plans to build a natural gas liquefaction facility in Wyalusing, Bradford County that would process fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale and liquefy it for transport via truck or train. This product is called Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), and the intent is for New Fortress Energy to deliver it to a port along the Delaware River more than 200 miles south in Gibbstown, New Jersey for international export. 

Because LNG is so volatile and explosive, transporting it via train was not permitted in the United States until recently, when the Trump administration changed the rules. LNG must be kept at -260 Fahrenheit in order to stay in liquid form. When the temperature is raised, the methane returns to gas form, expanding up to 600 times its previous volume in liquid form, and the consequences could be catastrophic. According to an article published in the Washington Post, "If safety valves fail, what engineers call a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, or BLEVE, would follow, probably blowing the damaged tank car apart and putting anyone nearby at risk." What's more is that LNG is highly flammable, burning at extreme temperatures so hot that a fire fueled by LNG cannot be extinguished; it must simply be allowed to burn out. Some experts liken a large-scale explosion of this material to the impact of a nuclear bomb.

While the exact routes for the potential train and truck transport have not been made public, it is not difficult to ascertain what the preferred routes may be. Both routes will likely travel through densely populated areas, like Allentown, Reading, and Philadelphia. These are routes that already see large amounts of both rail and truck traffic, whose emissions especially impact communities of color and low-income communities. According to an article published by Grist, "More than a million and a half people live within a 2-mile radius of the possible LNG transportation routes. Twenty-nine percent of those individuals, a little less than half a million people, are people of color, and 24 percent, some 400,000 people, are low income. In a letter to the DRBC last December, Philadelphia city officials wrote that New Fortress Energy’s LNG transport route through Philadelphia “will expose black and brown and low-income communities to the most intense and inescapable zone of impact should there be an accident such as a derailment.”

To compound the dangers posed to communities of color, this additional traffic - whether by rail or by truck - will exacerbate poor air quality and significantly contribute to the cumulative impacts of pollution that they already face. While rail shipments of LNG could include more than 100 cars per day, there may be as many as 300-400 trucks per day on local routes delivering LNG to the Gibbstown port.

While the proposed rail routes would not run along the Delaware River, they would, however, run along a lengthy stretch of the Lehigh River, which is a vital tributary to the mighty Delaware and is also the lifeblood of the economies of rural communities in the Poconos. Additionally, the trains would travel through Lehigh Gorge State Park, a beloved site of recreation for folks from the tri-state area. This region is at the heart of the outdoor recreation and tourist industries that are revitalizing communities in the Poconos that were ravaged by the coal extraction industry.

Ultimately, the transport of LNG along these truck and train routes not only puts historically disadvantaged communities in the blast radius if a catastrophe should occur, but even under the best circumstances, the traffic emissions produced would further degrade the poor air quality that urban centers like Allentown and Philadelphia already experience - Philadelphia has the worst air quality in the state, while the Lehigh Valley has the distinction of having the fourth worst air quality. 

Fortunately, we have not yet seen bomb trains running through our area, and they may still be prevented from coming to pass. The Biden administration has announced its intent to suspend and revisit the Trump-era rule allowing rail transport of LNG. Additionally, the special permit issued to New Fortress Energy allowing it to transport LNG by rail even in the absence of the general Trump-era rule expired on November 30, 2021 (though  it is our understanding that, at the last minute, the company applied for an extension). It is unclear whether this means the end of the risk of bomb trains, and we must remain vigilant against this risk.  

There is no question that transporting LNG from the liquefaction plant in Wyalusing to Gibbstown poses clear and present dangers for communities along the proposed routes. This entire scheme of “dry” LNG, liquifying the fracked gas hundreds of miles from the export port where it will be shipped to foriegn consumers, is untested, unnecessary, and dangerous. By developing new methods of transport, the fossil fuel extraction industry continues to expand its impacts deep into communities that otherwise are disconnected from the harvesting and processing of material. 

These bomb trains demonstrate the ever-expansive nature of Pennsylvania's environmental sacrifice zones and highlight which communities enjoy the least protection.

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