Mile-long trains carrying oil from Canada to Delaware passing through Lancaster County

A mile-long train carrying tankers of crude oil from Canada makes its way along the rail line near the Susquehanna River in Manor Township. (Jody Gontero)

Mile-long trains, sometimes two a day, carrying brand-new tankers filled with crude oil from the tar sands region of Canada have begun snaking along the Susquehanna River through Lancaster County.

The trains, usually carrying about 118 tankers of crude, are beating a path to the Delaware City Refinery in Delaware, one of the largest refineries on the East Coast. And then the empty trains head back to the oil fields on the same route, usually the next day.

The trains coming through Lancaster County follow Norfolk Southern's Port Road, which hugs the river from north of Marietta to Perryville, Md. Some trains reach the Port Road from the Royalton Branch, which also traces the river through Conoy Township.

Norfolk Southern refuses to confirm that the trains, which began running around January, travel through Lancaster County, citing security policies.

But railroad buffs know the train routes and routinely take photos and videos of them.

The extra-long trains appear to have attracted little local attention and have not prompted resident complaints in river towns such as Marietta and Columbia.

"I saw one the other day and I said, 'Boy, that's a long train,' " Mayor Leo Lutz of Columbia said Tuesday.

Lutz said the borough has not received any complaints about the long oil trains.

"You know, Columbia is kind of used to trains," he said.

"I had heard that they were doing that," Marietta Mayor Oliver Overlander II said about the trains. The only major crossing through the borough is at a private boat club, but that gets little traffic, he said.

Because the Port Road line is so close to the river, there are few crossings over public roads.

Video: A mile-long crude oil train passes through Lancaster County at Creswell in Manor Township

Video by Jody Gontero. Mobile users, click here to view the video.

Randall Gockley, Lancaster County's emergency management coordinator, said when interviewed several weeks ago that he was not aware of the crude oil trains.

He said he would like to have been notified so the county's firefighters would know what they are up against in the case of a fire or a spill of the toxic material so near the river.

But, he said, "By state law, railroads do not have to notify us of what's passing through."

"No doubt about it, it would be a sick mess" in case of a spill, he said, adding, "I have the utmost confidence in our local hazardous materials response teams."

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency "has not had any inquiries lately regarding the transport of crude oil," said spokesman Cory Angell.

But in Delaware, the oil trains have attracted complaints from residents and safety concerns from some state legislators.

Residents don't like traffic delays at rail crossings and blaring nighttime horns.

And the cargo itself has resulted in at least one picketing of the refinery by the Delaware Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Tar sands crude oil dug from boreal regions of Canada have been criticized for holding massive amounts of climate-changing carbon.

The crude oil trains coursing through Lancaster County carry the same oil that would flow through the 2,000-mile Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, if President Barack Obama permits the controversial project to go forward.

In the meantime, there has been a major shift from transporting the growing volume of crude oil by supertankers and overtaxed pipelines to transport by trains, which can be quicker, if more expensive.

PBF Energy, which is spending $50 million to expand its Delaware City Refinery, hopes to triple incoming oil from what arrives now. Currently, about 55,000 barrels of crude oil are arriving daily from Canadian tar sands, as well as from the Bakken Shale fields in Montana and the Dakotas.

Critics of crude oil being transported by train cite a recent study by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, that concludes that rail accidents occur 34 times more often than pipeline accidents per ton of crude oil or other hazardous material shipped comparable distances.

The Association of American Railroads has attacked the study as flawed, saying 74 percent of spills in the last three years have been of five gallons or less.

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