- Cargo & Facilities

6/5/2017: IOSC Recap #5 – USCG Sector Delaware Bay: Response to rail incidents planning project

Fifth in our IOSC series is recap of a presentation by Lt. Cmdr. Tracy Wirth, now assigned to the 14th District’s contingency planning office in Honolulu, titled “USCG Sector Delaware Bay: Response to Rail Incidents Planning Project.” Before her assignment in Hawaii, Wirth was stationed at Sector Delaware Bay and responded to two train derailments, first in Paulsboro, N.J., and then barely a year later, a second in Philadelphia.

Wirth’s talk focused on the importance of working with all stakeholders in the area and how they addressed the challenges resulting from increased rail transport of diluted bitumen (dilbit) and Bakken crude oils through a maritime environment. The presentation was part of the “Risk and Response of Crude-by-Rail” session moderated by Aaron Harrington of GDS/OBG.

U.S. Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay: Response to Rail Incidents Planning Project

In 2013, domestic petroleum production had skyrocketed and the crude oil products Bakken and dilbit were being transported by rail at an enormous rate. One of the largest concentrations of major rail arteries in the U.S. was found in the tri-state area of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, which is also home to five refineries and three rail companies.

Lt. Cmdr. Tracy Wirth, the chief of incident management at Sector Delaware Bay at the time, said the dynamics of the region were changing fast, and there was a lot of anxiety over the unknowns.

“We just didn’t know what these products were about,” Wirth said. “We have a lot of rivers, creeks, and the bay in that area, and these products were being transported over the water. We recognized the need for policy changes, plan updates, risk assessments, response strategies, and basic training, not only for Coast Guard, but also for the local responders.”

Then, Wirth said two real world events happened that cemented the need to ramp up their planning efforts. First, a train transiting to a Paulsboro, N.J., facility derailed Nov. 30, 2012, releasing about 18,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the environment. The entire town was evacuated and the response lasted about 20 days.

“It wasn’t oil, but it showed us these things can happen and that it can be pretty nasty,” Wirth said.

Wirth said they had just started work on updating the response plans, when a second train, this time carrying 210,000 gallons of Bakken crude, derailed in Philadephia. Fortunately, there was no discharge of oil.

Although these cases involved rail transports, Wirth said she knew the Coast Guard had to think about how to respond because many railways pass over navigable waterways, which is the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction.

Wirth said the ultimate goal was to update the Area Contingency Plan, including completing a Consensus Ecological Risk Assessment (CERA). They formed a workgroup consisting of stakeholders and subject matter experts in the area – local and state responders, rail companies, refineries, non-governmental organizations, and academia – to really understand where the products were going, what they were, and how they are transported.

The workgroup developed a two-phased project.

In the first phase, they identified 38 sites that had a rail/water nexus: Five in Delaware, 18 in Pennsylvania, and 15 in New Jersey. They identified the bridge owners and bridge users, and the products going over each bridge. They prioritized the 38 locations based on ecological sensitivity, historical significance, known risks, and the presence of endangered or threatened species.

The workgroup used this information to develop site plans (ICS 232s), booming strategies, pluming models, and prescriptive work assignments (ICS 204s). Then, the workgroup made site visits to all of the 38 locations to validate the work they had done. Wirth said this phase was completed in July 2015 when the Area Committee approved it for incorporation into the Area Contingency Plan.

The second phase of the project was to complete a CERA. Wirth said the CERA included input from NOAA, EPA, Fish & Wildlife, and the Philadelphia Emergency Management Agency, industry reps from each of the three states, rail companies, and academia.

“We looked really hard at Bakken and dilbit, because we were designing a plan to inform response decisions for these new oils,” Wirth said. “We all needed to first understand how the products behave in our environment and, second, come to consensus on our response options.”

The team looked at several environmental factors when completing the CERA:

  • Variables brought by different seasons
  • The products’ characteristics (weathering, floating, sinking) in fresh, brackish, and salt water
  • Human health and safety factors, particularly when dealing with the highly flammable Bakken
  • Issues related to air monitoring
  • Effects to endangered or threatened species


Wirth said the CERA was published in the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering and is still the only CERA completed on Bakkun and dilbit to date. She added they were also the first in the Coast Guard to incorporate rail planning into an ACP.

Want to read more from the Coast Guard at the 2017 International Oil Spill Conference? Check out our previous posts on Maritime Commons:

5/25/2017: IOSC Recap #4-Tank Barge APEX 3508: Best practices for detection and recovery of sunken oil
5/25/2017: IOSC Recap #3-Tank Barge Argo: A case study on the employment of NCP special teams

5/23/2017: IOSC 2017 Recap #2-In a hostile environment? Skills needed for success

5/23/2017: IOSC 2017 Recap #1- Time for a refresh in the pre-spill planning consultation process

5/16/17: IOSC 2017 – Opening plenary session – Prevent, Prepare, Respond & Restore


This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

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