Following I-95 tanker truck fire near Delaware River, experts weigh in on environmental impacts

The risks of transporting hazardous materials along the Delaware River, in particular, remains a concern.

A firefighter views the aftermath

A firefighter views the aftermath of an elevated section of Interstate 95 that collapsed, in Philadelphia, Monday, June 12, 2023. Drivers began longer commutes after section of I-95 collapse a day earlier following damage caused by a tanker truck carrying flammable cargo catching fire. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The U.S. Coast Guard continues to monitor the Delaware River to ensure there are no environmental impacts caused by the tanker truck fire that collapsed a busy portion of I-95 on Sunday.

The accident has caused increased traffic in Northeast Philadelphia as drivers have been rerouted from the scene. Traffic is expected to be impacted for months as repairs take place.

Officials were initially concerned about potential environmental impacts. The accident site is located near the Delaware River, which is upstream from the Baxter Water Treatment Plant, which takes in water from the river and provides drinking water to about 58% of city residents.

A sheen was spotted in a cove near the Delaware River on Sunday, but Coast Guard officials said it didn’t appear to be spreading further into the environment. The drinking water supply has not been affected, according to the city.

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Following Sunday’s accident, the Coast Guard curbed potential gasoline runoff with a floating containment boom in the river, and has been monitoring it to ensure it doesn’t collect debris or pollution.

Gerald Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware Water Resources Center, said though no environmental impacts arose following Sunday’s accident, the risks of transporting hazardous materials along the Delaware River remains a concern.

“It goes to the larger questions about carrying hazardous chemicals by vehicle, by pipeline. It goes to the larger concern about climate change, [and the need to] to get away from fossil fuels,” he said. “It’s a big issue. We see the oil tanker trains come down, bringing shale oil down to the refineries along the Delaware River. Will that be another Ohio, for instance?”

Kauffman calls for tanker trucks to be designed with double containment systems to avoid spills — oil tanker ships already are required to be built with them.

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If a spill does occur, the Delaware Bay and River Cooperative can dispatch oil skimming vessels to remove oily debris.

Dr. Arthur Frank, a professor of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University, said he’s more concerned about how increased traffic in neighborhoods might impact people with respiratory problems. Exhaust fumes contain benzene, as well as low levels of particulate matter 2.5 which is also found in larger amounts in wildfire smoke.

“A more serious issue now is you’ve got communities that are going to be impacted by making people get off the highway, go through communities that are going to have higher levels by a significant amount of motor vehicles,” Frank said.

Details about rebuilding and reopening the affected area of I-95 are expected to be announced Wednesday.

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