Hazardous materials regularly roll through Northeastern Pennsylvania communities by rail and road and it’s left to local first responders to be ready for when things go wrong.
Haz-mat incidents vary in degrees of danger, records show. Commonly, crews are called to overturned trucks leaking diesel fuel. Infrequently, there are more serious incidents, such as a chlorine leak at a water plant, a broken mercury thermometer or a potentially lethal gas unleashed from a mix of household cleaners.
And sometimes calls can take unexpected turns.
In Bucks County, a call about a suspicious container turned out to be rancid soup. A suspicious package left on the steps of a church held the remains of a pet bird. And in October 2019, a decontamination trailer in Wayne County was called to a report of a yellow-brown substance found in an envelope: It was toast crumbs.
None of those experiences can stack up to the potentially catastrophic hazards posed by the large-scale transportation of liquified natural gas from Pennsylvania to New Jersey as planned by the energy giant New Fortress Energy.
There is little to suggest that local first responders are prepared, either.
A Delaware Currents investigation has found:
- There has been no communication from New Fortress with local emergency services about the project, which raises serious questions about awareness and readiness for trains expected to carry as much as 3 million gallons of LNG at a time nearly 200 miles from Pennsylvania into New Jersey.
- New Fortress has publicly said it expects the project to be running by early 2022, but records show there’s been no outreach about training the dozens of emergency agencies that dot the route that LNG rail and highway tankers would follow.
- Though fire officials emphasize they’re ready for anything, experts caution that volunteer firefighters can be overwhelmed and often put on a brave face to assure the public that everything is under control.
As one fire chief described responding to the unknowns of an LNG explosion: “Ya’ll dial 911 and here we come running with our lights and sirens. We’re going to save the world. Well, that’s not how it is really.”
Awareness? What awareness?
New Fortress Energy proposes to haul the super-cooled natural gas from a plant in Wyalusing, Pa., to a Delaware River port in Gibbstown, N.J.
The company has not publicly disclosed its routes but a map created by the FracTracker Alliance shows various paths could potentially cut through as many as 18 Pennsylvania and New Jersey counties,15 of them in the Delaware River watershed.
The project would mean up to 100 LNG rail cars and as many as 400 highway tankers per day snaking through or near densely populated communities, such as Allentown, Reading, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and sections of Philadelphia and its suburbs.
“We don’t know about that project. We know very little about that.”
Eugene Dziak, the emergency manager for Wyoming County, Pa.
Critics fear the sheer volume of LNG in transit and what could go wrong if the specialized cryogenic tankers were breached in a derailment.
If an LNG vapor cloud ignited, an explosion could send projectiles hundreds of feet as well as set off a fire that can burn as high as 2,426 degrees – more than twice the flame temperature of gasoline. The thermal radiation from such an explosion could cause second-degree burns in as little as 30 seconds.
LNG vapor clouds can travel great distances and are especially dangerous if trapped in confined spaces, such as culverts, tunnels or between buildings. Further, water cannot be used to extinguish an LNG fire. It has to burn itself out, which can, depending on its size, take days.
Project supporters and federal regulators who issued a special permit to allow LNG by rail maintain that the mandated tankers are up to the task and have a sound safety record while opponents fear that a catastrophic event known as BLEVE -- Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion -- could wipe out an entire city.
“For me, on the scale of worry, it’s an eight or a nine.”
-Patrick Hardy, chief executive of Hytropy Disaster Management
How much the project is on the radar of county or local emergency responders is difficult to thoroughly assess but if public records and interviews are any guide, the answer would be not at all.
Delaware Currents made public records requests in mid-January of the 18 New Jersey and Pennsylvania counties that make up the potential rail and highway routes, seeking any correspondences to or from New Fortress Energy about the project.
Specifically, were there any records dating from 2019 to or from the counties’ emergency planners and Local Emergency Planning Committees about coordination, training or awareness about the LNG project? No, they said. (Philadelphia was the only one to deny the records request, which is being appealed. Gloucester County, N.J., has had communications about the Delaware River port that touched on the LNG shipments. See sidebar.)
What about the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, whose highways and bridges LNG tanker trucks would travel? Did it have any correspondences about the project’s route?
Or what about the Delaware River Port Authority, which runs the Commodore Barry Bridge, which would be the bridge spanning the Delaware River that would be primarily used for hundreds of LNG tankers per day. Did it have any records about the project?
Given a proposed project of this size, the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency would almost certainly have records about emergency planning or first responder training, right?
Told of the lack of communications with emergency planners, Patrick Hardy, chief executive of Hytropy Disaster Management, said, “For me, on the scale of worry, it’s an eight or a nine.”
Duane Hagelgans, an associate professor at the Center for Disaster Research & Education at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, said it might be that New Fortress has not reached out because the project is not yet operational.
However, the first responder community is usually aware of projects like this one from the starting gate, he said. “Typically, we have it on our radar before they go past ‘go,’” he said.
Evidence of how little awareness there has been among public officials surfaced in an email exchange with Tunkhannock Township, Pa.
Of all the communities on the Wyalusing-to-Gibbstown route, that township, which is in Wyoming County, is one of the communities where both LNG trucks and rail cars would most intensely pass through.
When Delaware Currents asked about emergency preparations related to the LNG project, the municipal secretary replied: “I think you have the wrong Tunkhannock Township. There are two of us. One in Wyoming Co. and the other one is in Monroe Co.”
Ready -- or not
As far back as 2005, the National Association of State Fire Marshals warned, “Fire officials must prepare now and become well versed on LNG so that they are ready to address emerging issues concerning community safety.”
But have they?
It’s a question that resonates far beyond New Jersey and Pennsylvania because federal regulators have given blanket permission nationally for LNG to be transported by rail, meaning emergency responders are likely to face new, unfamiliar situations involving the super-cooled gas.
“A deficient emergency response is more often the rule than the exception.”
-Carolyn W. Merritt, chairwoman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, testifying before the Senate
The National Fire Protection Association warned that adding a flammable cryogenic material, like LNG, to current high-hazard flammable train shipments “posed further challenges to the capabilities and resources for local responders.”
Federal regulators have acknowledged that LNG response training is available for fixed facilities but that “the currently available training is not specific to rail transportation.”
In the special permit granted to New Fortress, regulators required the company to train emergency agencies about LNG rail accidents.
“(Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) does not anticipate a situation where an emergency response agency will be unaware of how to respond to an incident involving a train transporting LNG subject to this special permit,” regulators confidently wrote.
But how much of that was wishful thinking?
LNG awareness aside, the level of hazardous material training and expertise appears to vary widely by jurisdiction, with a local patchwork ranging from fairly sophisticated to rudimentary, public records show.
“Transportation keeps me up at night. We don’t do offsite emergency plans for an intersection when an accident or rollover can occur.”
George Wilson, member of the Bucks County Local Emergency Planning Committee, in 2019
Delaware Currents wrote to a sampling of New Jersey and Pennsylvania fire departments in communities where LNG tankers would pass through or near by rail or road.
Thirty-nine departments were asked, among other things, how much they had heard about the project and their state of training and readiness for LNG.
Only two replied. Frank Guido, the fire chief of the Kingston/Forty Fort Fire Department in Luzerne County, Pa., said he had heard nothing about the project
Rory Koons, the president and safety officer for the Aquashicola Volunteer Fire Company in Palmerton, Pa., also said he had heard nothing.
“The transporting of LNG through rural areas along with populated communities poses many risks and dangers for both residents and emergency responders,” he said “I am confident the regulatory agencies will require the transports to be built to the highest federal standards with safety being paramount. Nevertheless, that will not alleviate the dangers in an unfortunate accident.”
Eugene Dziak, the emergency manager for Wyoming County, Pa., expressed confidence.
“Those containers are manufactured with more safety devices than anybody can imagine,” he said. “We’re ready but I’m not overly concerned.”
And Lucy Morgan, the director of emergency management in Luzerne County, Pa., said she did not know much about it.
“It’s absolutely a concern but hopefully we are prepared for any situation,” she said. “We would handle it like any other emergency.”
New Fortress did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Projecting preparedness is ‘window dressing’
Even the most experienced of fire officials have found themselves challenged responding to LNG accidents.
Lonnie E. Click, a fire chief in Benton County in southern Washington, was the incident commander at the most serious LNG accident in recent American history, which happened in Plymouth, Wash., in 2014, when an explosion tore through a liquified natural gas storage facility.
Click had had extensive experience leading responses to major natural disasters, such as wildfires, hurricanes and landslides.
But LNG? That was new to him.
“There were these two big huge tanks that I was on a crash course of learning all about LNG one morning at 8:30 because I really didn’t know anything about it,” he recalled at a 2016 conference.
Hagelgans said it is not necessarily a matter of career vs. volunteer firefighters that will make a difference in the case of an LNG accident.
“Any fire department – from the biggest to the smallest – if you have a major accident with hazardous materials, they’re going to be tested,” he said.
In some cases, urban departments might have the resources but a lot of residents to look out for while rural departments might lack the resources but have fewer residents to worry about.
Hardy, of Hytropy Disaster Management, said responders overestimate their abilities and put on a good face about being prepared no matter what the circumstances.
“It can be a lot of window dressing,” he said. “‘We’re prepared. Don’t even worry about it.’”
Emergency managers take that position because they don't want to face political heat and also because elected officials often want simply yes/no answers to complex problems.
Because the Wyalusing-to-Gibbstown project spans multiple counties as well as two states, it’s more likely that politics, interpersonal relationships and turf battles will get in the way.
Hardy said planning is critical but if there is no training to back it up, then the planning is useless, and if there are no drills to reinforce the planning and training, then they’re both useless. Compounding the issue is that hazardous materials drills are expensive and difficult to run, he said.
“You can have the best plan, but if you don’t train, then what you have is a paperweight,” Hagelgans said.
Even when training is offered, it’s no guarantee that firefighters – particularly those who are volunteers with other life commitments – are going to be able to attend because they’ll need to take unpaid leave from work, a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine noted.
With volunteers staffing fire departments and ambulance corps, turnover is inevitable and it becomes more challenging to train people and deepen their experience, Hardy said. Nearly 97 percent of Pennsylvania’s fire departments are all or mostly volunteer, and the vast majority of the routes the LNG will travel are through areas staffed by volunteers.
“The whole emergency response community is a bit of a con game because they rarely talk about their vulnerabilities,” said Fred Millar, an independent railway and hazardous materials transportation expert, who emphasized the need to work on preventing a disaster in the first place.
“What is the likelihood of there being an accident? That’s a difficult thing to judge. There is a likelihood of some incident at some point.”
-Samantha L. Montano, an assistant professor at the Emergency Management Department at Massachusetts Maritime Academy
“How can we have a good level of concern and preparedness and funding if you’re told all the time that ‘We’ve got this covered. We’re prepared. No big deal,’” Millar said.
That kind of bravado attitude was in evidence at a November 2019 gathering of first responders hosted by the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Federal Emergency Management and the U.S. Fire Administration in Lancaster County, Pa., to discuss emergency preparedness related to the transportation of LNG by rail.
A report from the meeting seemed to downplay concerns.
“There was no particular heightened concern expressed regarding the proposed rail transport of LNG because the hazardous materials preparedness community was already well oriented to the challenges of LNG incident response in other transportation modes and fixed facility environments,” it said.
Notably, of the 18 Pennsylvania and New Jersey counties that could be affected by the New Fortress project, only six were represented at the meeting, records show.
LNG by rail: Unknown territory
Hardy said LNG has for years been transported by marine vessels and highway tankers and that it has enjoyed a strong safety record. But transporting it by rail changes the equation.
Responding to rail derailments differs vastly from highway crashes because railroads are often accessible only on unpaved, rough roads that ambulances and fire trucks are ill-equipped to traverse, he said.
Click, who was incident commander at the Plymouth explosion, said it’s paramount to pay close attention to vulnerable spots, such as uncontrolled railroad crossings, trestles and staying up on track and train maintenance.
Allan M. Zarembski, a professor of practice and director of the railroad engineering and safety program at the University of Delaware, wrote a report in 2015 with recommendations for improving safety of rail transport of crude oil in Pennsylvania.
“I think the big railroads – Norfolk Southern, CSX – are really well-prepared to handle the hazardous materials,” he said. “The short lines? The answer is, I don’t know.”
He said short line rails might not have access to the latest technology – such as ultrasonic and track geometry testing – to guard against damage to the rails.
The majority of the “nastiest” headline-grabbing derailments have historically been caused by track conditions, Zarembski added.
Emergency response guidelines recommend evacuations of a mile in all directions in the event of an LNG rail tanker or truck fire but effective evacuations can be a tall order.
“Evacuation is something we fail at most in emergency management because it’s a challenge to get people to adhere to many times,” Hagelgans said. Even using modern tools to transmit warnings, such as text messaging and reverse 911 calls, “doesn’t mean people are going to leave.”
And then there is the sheer scale and logistics of evacuations: what routes to take, where to send people, addressing special-needs facilities, such as nursing homes, and how to move people quickly in densely packed places like metro Philadelphia.
Amanda Savitt, a disaster researcher, said it’s harder when emergency managers or the alerting authorities don’t have a good understanding of the hazardous materials passing through their communities.
For instance, in the case of a Casselton, N.D., crude oil train disaster in 2013, emergency managers did not know what risks there were to the public and issued a voluntary evacuation message instead of a direct order.
“It’s helpful if you’re not having to write the message and figure out the protective action as the event is happening,” she said. “Having a good knowledge of what the hazard is and the protective action decision is super important.”
Click said local responders need to have “very, very explicit planning” and pre-planning that accounts for critical evacuation routes, reverse-911 notifications and how to access an accident scene.
“You’re going to have an accident at some point in time,” he said. “You can’t say never. Never never happens. At some point in time, something is going to happen.”
Gloucester County Addresses the Repauno Port
Emails reveal extensive conversations among Gloucester County, N.J., emergency planners, fire officials and Ken Charron, the vice president of law for Delaware River Partners, one of the entities behind the LNG project.
The volume of communications, which were secured through a public records request, likely reflects that the county is home to the high-profile facility in Gibbstown that would export the LNG via the Delaware River.
The communications touched on the LNG project and cast a rosy outlook about plans for the port.
Dennis P. McNulty, coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management for Gloucester County wrote to Charron on Oct. 3, 2018, about preparing the site’s emergency response plan.
“I think it’s safe to say we were all impressed with the work going at the port,” McNulty wrote. “The scale of your envisioned operations are extraordinary, and we’re pleased to join your team’s preparedness efforts.”
And in a May 5, 2019, email to Robert Van Fossen, the director of emergency management for the state Department of Environmental Protection, McNulty wrote, “I appreciate that Ken (Charron), on behalf of Delaware River Partners/Repauno Port & Rail Terminal, is continuing to demonstrate an understanding and apparent commitment to a collaborative preparedness planning.”
A July 3, 2019 email from McNulty to Charron: “My interest is to be sure these drills/exercises reflect how a response to an incident at your facility would & should occur based on existing or, to be developed plans/procedures. This is particularly important were an actual incident to be of such magnitude that the coordination of responding assets (fire & others) are managed effectively and again, in accordance with plans in place.”
An Oct. 18, 2019, email alluded to meetings and coordination with the Infrastructure Security Unit of the New Jersey State Police, the state’s protective security adviser, the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness and local police and fire officials.
And in a Jan. 3, 2020, email, McNulty wrote Van Fossen that an exercise involving a rail accident scenario would be a good idea “given the industrial development taking place and the hazards/risks associated with that growth.”
The county has had a history of rail incident, he added. “Perhaps such an exercise would be a good opportunity to demonstrate what lessons were learned?”