halifax explosion
The Halifax explosion, 100 years ago https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHalifax_Explosion_blast_cloud_restored.jpg

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the “Halifax Explosion”, the largest man-made explosion prior to the use of nuclear weapons. 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured when two ships, one of them carrying explosives, collided in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The reports recalling the Halifax explosion made me wonder whether something similar could happen in the Delaware River.

The Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2) is designed to fill huge ethane-carrying “dragonships”.  Already, the smaller Mariner East 1 is in partial operation. It supplies the dragonship fleet with two or three shiploads of ethane for export to European refineries every month.

The explosive power of a fully-loaded dragonship is roughly the equivalent of 170,000 tons of TNT. That’s in the range of a small nuclear bomb.

A rupture and ignition of the ethane in of one of these dragonships would create a far more powerful explosion than the Halifax one. If it happened while the ship was moored at Marcus Hook, it would kill hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of people in that part of Delaware County. If it happened near the Philadelphia airport (where the dragonships sometimes take on their ethane cargo), it could wipe out the control tower, damage or destroy dozens of planes, and injure or kill many people in the terminal.

And the ships are also a danger while under way. What would happen if there were an accident while the ship was passing close by Wilmington or, on the other end of the journey, close by Edinburgh, Scotland? What if it was passing the Salem nuclear generating station?

I am reminded of the barge that hit an amphibious “duck” boat full of tourists on the Delaware River a few years back. There are good tools available for avoiding collisions on the river these days, but accidents still happen. I shudder to think of what could happen if an accident involved one of the dragonships.