The Climate Story Behind the Philadelphia I-95 Bridge Collapse

4 minute read

Eighty-five hundred gallons of gasoline is a cargo that needs to be handled carefully. If you doubt that, consider what happened on June 11, at 6:15 a.m., when the driver of a tanker truck filled with gasoline lost control of his vehicle after taking an exit ramp below Interstate 95 in Philadelphia and struck a wall. The truck tipped and exploded, setting off a fire that melted the support structure of the road above, causing it to collapse.

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro issued a proclamation of disaster emergency the next day and acknowledged at a press briefing that that section of I-95, which carries an average of 160,000 vehicles per day, would be closed for “some number of months.” The ripple effects along I-95, a 1,927-mile roadway that runs from Florida to Maine, are yet to be determined.

“The I-95 corridor is a vital connection for people and goods traveling along the East Coast,” said the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in an emailed statement, “and FHWA has offered support and assistance to state and local officials to help them safely reopen this section of I-95 as quickly as possible.”

If there is massive expense, inconvenience, and tragedy (the remains of the truck driver, 53-year-old Nathaniel Moody, were identified by his family June 12) involved in the disaster, there was a touch of irony too. The very thing that brought the overpass down—gasoline—is what keeps the cars that rely on it running. The risk of similar accidents remains: across the U.S., there is a lot of gas in motion all the time, carried by both truck and rail.

According to the American Geosciences Institute, there are 100,000 tanker trucks carrying oil and gas on U.S. roads every day. And according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, in 2020, there were 5,949 tanker truck accidents, ranging in severity from fatal or injury-causing to requiring a mere towaway. Not all tankers carry gasoline or oil; some carry products as benign as milk and molasses. But as one 2019 study conducted by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found, from 1997 to 2017, there were at least 224 oil tanker explosions or fires worldwide, leading to 2,909 deaths and an additional 3,038 hospitalizations.

Trains add another dimension to the problem. The American Association of Railroads reports that in the U.S. last year, 68,000 tanker carloads of domestically produced oil traveled across the country by rail, factoring out to an average of 121,000 barrels per day. About 1,700 train derailments occur annually, according to the Bureau of Transportation. In the U.S. and Canada, 21 derailments involving trains carrying oil or gasoline occurred from 2013 to 2021—a small number in comparison to the total, but one that can do devastating damage. A 2013 derailment in Quebec killed 47 people and destroyed 40 buildings. Another in Illinois in 2015 spilled 125,000 gallons of crude and sparked a fire that burned for two days.

Environmentalists refer to trucks and trains carrying oil as “rolling bombs” and if that overstates the case, it’s only by a little. “This tanker crash is just the latest example of the risks of relying on fossil fuels,” says Jordan Brinn, a policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “From exploration to tailpipe exhaust, our dependence on oil is dangerous for our health and for the environment. Transitioning to electric vehicles is not without risk, but compared to the enormous costs of our current reliance on fossil fuels, it is a key part of building a cleaner, smarter transportation system for the future.”

But that transition will be a good while in coming. There are more than 282 million motor vehicles registered in the U.S. and just over two million of them are EVs. With the average price of an EV close to $59,000, many motorists are simply priced out of the electric market. For the present then, we are likely to continue to live with the danger of accidents like the one that struck Philadelphia. The internal combustion engine is, by its very design, built around a series of tiny explosions that take place inside its cylinders. When those tiny internal explosions become massive external ones, we all pay a high price.

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