One of the reasons that Keystone XL has faced so much opposition is the threat of a leak. Nebraska forced TransCanada to reroute vast stretches of the proposed pipeline to avoid a key aquifer.

But no pipeline doesn’t mean no leaks. As our Lisa Hymas noted yesterday, oil companies have massively increased rail use to bring oil to market. It’s more costly, yes (think Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood), but it gets the job done … until those trains fall in waterways.

From the South Jersey Times:

Four railroad tank cars have been dumped into the Mantua Creek and are leaking vinyl chloride after the train bridge collapsed at about 7 a.m.

Support Grist, win an electric bike!

Ambulances are being sent to the Paulsboro Marine Terminal where approximately 18 people are reported to be experiencing breathing difficulties at 7:40 a.m.

Initial responders report seven cars overturned and derailed near the 200 block of East Jefferson Street, between North Delaware Street and the creek.

On the plus side: Vinyl chloride is a gas, so it is unlikely to contaminate Mantua Creek, which connects to the Delaware River and then the Delaware Bay. With petroleum or tar-sands oil, the long-term effects could be much worse.

We’ll note, too, the other problem at fault here: infrastructure. The bridge over which the train was running appears to be this one:

It’s an odd bridge, one built almost a century ago. It looks as though it’s incomplete in the image above, but it’s not. It’s open. The bridge, in a process described here, swings open and shut to allow boats to pass by. It’s easy to imagine how such a system, if imperfectly realigned, could result in a derailment like the one seen today. In images of today’s disaster, you can see that the accident occurred at the point where the bridge swings open.

A 2008 coal train derailment in Decatur.
A 2008 coal train derailment in Decatur.

So we have toxic chemicals being moved over century-old infrastructure built to cross a waterway that connects to a major river. And, increasingly, we have the same thing happening across the Plains States. While pipelines are generally safer than trains, they’re still infrastructure, bound to degrade over time.

At the heart of it, the problem isn’t the system of transport. The problem is that we want to shuttle toxic chemicals around at all. Until we solve that problem, we will undoubtedly see spills like today’s happen again — but with potentially far bigger repercussions.