Harrisburg mayor says councilman's news conference on 'bomb trains' sensationalized details

The Patriot-News | March 10, 2015 | Column by Christine Vendel

HARRISBURG -- Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse on Tuesday night sought to quell the alarm a city councilman raised Monday regarding so-called "bomb trains" traveling through the Capital.

Harrisburg City Councilman Brad Koplinski, who is running for re-election this year, held a news conference Monday to discuss new legislation to address 'bomb trains' carrying Bakken crude oil through the city. Koplinski displayed a photo of a train derailment from Lynchburg, Va., from last April.

Trains carrying highly volatile Bakken crude oil are a concern for Harrisburg, and for the region, Papenfuse said. Three trains hauling Bakken oil have derailed in recent weeks nationwide, causing spectacular fireballs.

But train derailments have been a concern in Harrisburg for 100 years, Papenfuse said, noting that Monday's news conference by Councilman Brad Koplinski politicized the issue and may have given some people the wrong impression.

"There's a fine line between public awareness and sensationalism, and I think we crossed that yesterday," he said Tuesday night. "We want to kind of bring it back."

Koplinski, who is running for re-election this year, staged the news conference to highlight proposed legislation that would urge federal officials to speed up regulations requiring safer train cars, lower speed limits and smaller trains.

Koplinski said 25 trains carrying Bakken crude oil pass through the city each week. He used the Shipoke neighborhood as an example of where a disaster could occur.

But Papenfuse clarified Tuesday night that the Norfolk Southern trains that travel over a bridge through Shipoke don't carry Bakken oil. Rather, all the Bakken oil travels along the West Shore and a portion of the oil crosses over the Rockville Bridge, north of Harrisburg. That portion continues through Harrisburg and Hershey, Papenfuse said.

Railroad officials "have clearly chosen not to take it across an aging bridge in the middle of the city, but you might have gotten the opposite impression if you heard the press conference the other day," he said. "Really this is not just an issue that affects Harrisburg. It affects all sorts of communities. It's as much a Hershey problem as a Harrisburg problem."

Papenfuse also noted that Monday's news conference may have created the impression that city officials weren't aware of, or working on the issue, which is not true, he said.

Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline has been meeting regularly with county officials and others to address an action plan to deal with this very issue, Papenfuse said. City officials also have a meeting planned with Norfolk Southern, and they plan to meet with officials across the region at a counter-terrorism task force meeting in April.

"The city lines are closely watched and carefully inspected," Papenfuse said.

Trains can travel in rural areas at 60 mph, but the speed limit is 40 mph in the city, he said. Trains in Harrisburg voluntarily travel much slower, Papenfuse said, at about 25 mph.

Enterline said Bakken crude oil "is the flavor of the day, if you will, but we've been dealing with this since [the advent] of ethanol going into gasoline," he said. "We have dealt with trains going through the city for 100 years, carrying everything from butane to propane to boxes of things going to Wal-Mart. This is nothing new we're dealing with, it's just there have been significant derailments in the last year with the Bakken crude."

Although Papenfuse took issue with some details from Koplinski's news conference Monday, Papenfuse said he and Enterline support Koplinski's legislation. Koplinski's bill was sent to a committee for review.

During the council meeting Tuesday night, Councilwoman Susan Brown-Wilson chided Koplinski for creating legislation dealing with federal regulations but stalling legislation for tax abatements that could encourage economic development in the city. 
Koplinski is chairman of the Community and Economic Development Committee, where a bill to enact tax breaks under the state's Local Economic Revitalization Assistance law remains stagnant.

"We have got to allow businessman to come into this community if we are to effectuate change," she said. "Some people call it gentrification. I call it revitalization.

"If we do not invite developers in here ladies and gentleman, our community will never grow."

Brown-Wilson also noted after the meeting that Harrisburg had "never had a train blow up in this community."

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Harrisburg mayor says councilman's news conference on 'bomb trains' sensationalized details
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE works to promote safe, sustainable energy and environmental justice.  We aim to engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry's assault on the people of Albany and our environment.