Ohio train derailment prompts new calls to block natural gas transport plan

Energy company wants to transport liquified natural gas from Pennsylvania for export overseas

By: - February 15, 2023 6:58 am

EAST PALESTINE, OH – FEBRUARY 14: Machinery is situated along rail tracks on February 14, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. A train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed on February 3, releasing toxic fumes and forcing evacuation of residents. (Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

Sahana Rao has a horrifying heads-up for anyone who has followed the Feb. 3 train derailment that turned the tiny village of East Palestine, Ohio, into a toxic hellscape earlier this month.

It could happen here.

Rao is a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which along with a legion of other environmental advocates has been battling an energy company’s proposal to build a terminal and rail line in Gloucester County to transport liquefied natural gas.

If it’s approved, it would be the first in the country. Rail transport of liquified natural gas had been federally prohibited without a special permit until the Trump administration lifted the ban. That cleared the way for New Fortress Energy in 2019 to propose building a terminal in Gibbstown to load liquified natural gas — from compressed natural fracked gas shipped from northeast Pennsylvania — onto ships for export to overseas markets.

Gibbstown is located near the Delaware River, roughly across from Philadelphia’s airport.

Environmentalists have been fighting the plan, but the Ohio train derailment injected new urgency into their fight. On Feb. 3, a freight train carrying toxic chemicals including vinyl chloride derailed, sparking an inferno, fears of an explosion, and air, soil, and water pollution of a magnitude yet to be determined.

That derailment involved 38 cars of a 150-car train. The Gibbstown plan calls for two 100-car trains to transport liquified natural gas 200 miles every day, Rao said. Each car would carry 30,000 gallons of the gas, she added. There are four proposed routes, and they cross through cities like Camden, Allentown, Trenton, and Philadelphia, she said.

“The chances of something happening here are higher just by the sheer amount of train cars,” Rao said. “Two million people live within just a two-mile radius of the transport routes. It’s a pretty monster operation — and it has the potential to affect a lot of people.”

Derailments are fairly common, averaging about 1,700 a year in the U.S. While most don’t result in injuries or death, critics of the Gibbstown plan warn that any problem with that line could be catastrophic.

Liquified natural gas is a volatile, flammable material, so any breach of a rail car carrying it could result in flammable leaks, noxious vapor clouds, explosions, and fires. Twenty-two train cars of liquified natural gas hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb, according to environmental law group EarthJustice, prompting environmentalists to dub such transports “bomb trains.”

Delayed plans

The Gibbstown proposal is somewhat in a holding pattern.

New Fortress Energy has gotten several permits but still needs others to proceed. And federal authorities are expected to announce in mid-March whether they’ll suspend the Trump rule and return to a prohibition on rail transport of liquified natural gas without a special permit. New Jersey was one of 15 states to challenge the rule to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2020.

New Fortress didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Critics say state officials don’t have to wait for the feds to act.

“The state has given them every permit they needed so far, but there’s still permits they can stop,” environmentalist Jeff Tittel said. “New Jersey also has the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act, which is a very strong law that gives the governor even more authority. So the governor can stop it. He can also kill it through an executive order.”

The heightened concern comes as Gov. Phil Murphy is set to announce Wednesday that he’ll bump the state’s goal of having a 100% clean-energy economy from 2050 to 2035 and establish a natural gas task force to plot ways to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

“It’s really counterproductive to be fighting to end fossil fuel reliance while not addressing a threat on another front,” Rao said.

A Murphy spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.