Philly's coming oil wars

The good news: The oil business in Philadelphia -- which was on the brink of disappearing just a couple of years ago -- is suddenly booming, creating jobs and bringing money into the city.

The bad news...may be the same thing. The old Sunoco refinery in South Philadelphia, a city landmark for decades, hired back as many as 1,000 people when it reopened last year as Philadelphia Energy Solutions -- but its rebirth has raised serious questions about whether Philadelphia's infrastructure is up to the task of handling at least 5 million barrels of crude oil shipped through the highly populated core of the city every month.

Less than 5 weeks after I wrote a front page story about the environmental issues surrounding the oil trains -- including out-of-date tanker cars and growing evidence that crude oil from North Dakota is highly flammable -- disaster was averted when oil cars derailed on an 128-year-old (that's not a typo) bridge over the Schulkill River but did not rupture. Just five days later, with little fanfare, this happened:

The U.S. Coast Guard reported Friday that it was overseeing the cleanup of 50 gallons of crude oil that spilled into the Delaware River from a Sunoco facility in South Philadelphia.

An estimated 2,000 gallons of crude oil had discharged Thursday from a broken pipe onto a parking lot at the Sunoco Logistics Terminal Facility. About 200 gallons spilled into a drain, of which 50 gallons went into the river.

The Coast Guard said that a private firm was recovering the oil from the water and cleaning the drain, and that the source of the spill was secured. "We are doing our best to ensure a thorough cleanup with minimal environmental impact," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Steven Dukes, a Coast Guard marine science technician.

Obviously, the environmental damage from these episodes was fairly minimal, unlike rail accidents that caused fires and spills in North Dakota and Alabama and mass casualties in Quebec, and for that we should be grateful. But are we dodging a bullet, with so much crude oil suddenly coursing through an aging infrastructure in a highly populated city -- wilth little advance warning or public debate? When I started reporting this story late last year. even the environmental community wasn't paying close attention.

They're paying attention now. Stay tuned.