The train derailment involving hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio is a useful eye-opening reminder of why our local fire and law enforcement entities must be capable of a top-notch response to prevent a loss of life, contamination of the water supply, and destruction of property.
Waiting until we have a massive derailment of rail tanker cars is not the time to begin the public dialog on measures our local officials should be considering to ensure the safety of our citizens.
Keep in mind that we have significant CSX Intermodal, Inc. rail traffic through Tyrone and Peachtree City at all hours of the day and night. Additionally, we also have several rail spurs where tanker cars are parked for extended periods, some within 75 to 100 feet of large residential subdivisions. [Editor’s note: there is no record of any major derailments or any incidents involving hazardous materials in rail cars in Fayette County in the past half century.]
What created an East Palestine scenario?
On February 3, there was a significant derailment, tanker leak, and fire in East Palestine, Ohio.
Some of you might be wondering why the tragic event took so long to appear in national news broadcasts. If the Ohio River was contaminated as a major water source, it certainly merited attention.
It turns out that three of the largest investors in Norfolk Southern Railway are The Vanguard Group (8.04%), BlackRock Fund Advisors (4.57%), and SSgA Funds Management (4.46%). Interestingly enough, those same investment firms are significant stakeholders in CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, and CBS.
Just guessing, perhaps the leverage the investment firms had on the main media outlets held the bad publicity down in an attempt to salvage the Norfolk Southern stock price — just speculating.
The train had three locomotives and 150 cars in tow for a length of almost two miles. Twenty of the rail tankers carried hazardous and explosive material.
A CCTV camera 20 miles west in Salem, Ohio showed that one of the rail cars was on fire. Due to the extreme length of the train, conductors could not see the fire. The track did have a “hot box” detector and the fire did set off an alarm, causing the conductors to eventually apply the emergency brakes, but it was too late to thwart the derailment.
The absolute inertia of 150 heavy rail cars moving at a good clip means it would have taken miles to bring the train to a stop. Upon derailing, the cars will jackknife, sometimes catapulting cars long distances.
Norfolk Southern and their hazmat subcontractors felt it was necessary to conduct a forced depressurization explosion to release the vinyl chloride to prevent catastrophe. Plumes of smoke filled the entire sky, advancing health concerns. Runoff into water sources was also a concern.
Norfolk Southern immediately doled out more than $1 million to over 700 families in the evacuation zone. The local fire department also received $200,000 for self-contained breathing equipment from the railroad.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted in-house air quality testing after the incident was under control.
Areas of concern
The railroads are being criticized for reducing the number of employees and extending the length of trains by 100% or more.
After the 9-11 terrorist attack, the contents of the tanker cars are no longer written on the outside of the tankers for easy identification. The contents of the containers must be identified before emergency personnel can do anything to mitigate any of the dangers like fires, hazardous vapor release, etc.
The East Palestine train also had hydrogen chloride on board. If that tanker ruptured and the firefighters were to put water on a nearby fire, hydrochloric acid would be formed causing an even greater hazard.
The conductors have an inventory list, but if the locomotive is destroyed and the conductor is killed, it will take longer to identify the contents by contacting the railroad’s safety unit by phone or the internet.
Rising fuel prices are causing the railroads to look for ways to cut costs which could impact safety.
Liquefied natural gas is now permitted to be transported via rail tanker, also known as the “bomb train” because the contents are highly explosive.
Remember that empty tanker cars can also be dangerous because there is enough residue inside the tanker to emit hazardous fumes if ruptured.
Many of the local East Palestine residents had no idea how to respond to keep their families safe.
Experts have claimed that more technically advanced brakes on the train could have made a difference.
Observations for safety in Tyrone and Peachtree City
A safe assessment of who could be immediately impacted by a hazmat-type derailment would include anyone living within one mile east and west of Senoia Road in Tyrone and anyone living within one mile east and west of Ga. Highway 74 in Peachtree City. Understandably, the range could be smaller or larger depending on the circumstances.
The level of danger depends upon several factors, including the contents of the tanker cars, damage to the tanker cars, the presence of fire, weather conditions, and the ability of emergency personnel to reach the derailment area.
A primary concern is having adequate personnel and hazmat equipment to respond as well as a clear site. If tanker cars rupture in wooded areas without immediate road access, the response could be jeopardized.
Weather is critical as some chemicals when mixed with rain can turn into lethal gases. Wind direction can determine the path of destruction, carrying lethal fumes for long distances.
Logistics can be a major issue. Having enough police to reroute traffic away from the derailment zone is paramount.
The railroads subcontract with private hazmat response companies. If the response company is located in north metro Atlanta, it could take an hour or more for the subcontractor to arrive during heavy commuting times on the interstates.
Communication with impacted homeowners is absolutely essential. How does the local government alert homeowners? Do homeowners evacuate or should they shelter in place? How do you keep fumes out of your house if you are forced to shelter in place? (Sheltering in place is sometimes necessary if escape routes are cut off or if the area is overwhelmed with hazardous gases in the air, meaning exposure outside could be more hazardous.)
The Fayette County Emergency Management Agency used to have an automatic phone alert system called CodeRED, but the contract was discontinued in 2018 due to the inability to get citizens to register their cell phone numbers in the system application.
In Tyrone, the Fayette County Fire Department is responsible for incident command. The Peachtree City Fire Department is responsible for an incident in Peachtree City. Other agencies can respond with assistance through mutual or automatic aid agreements.
Remember the contents of the tanker cars must be identified first and determined safe for first responders before they enter the scene.
Tanker cars parked for extended periods on rail spurs near neighborhoods can be hazardous if they are leaking. Some of the fumes from the tankers could be heavier than air and remain low to the ground, heading in the direction the wind takes it.
Do fire departments in Fayette County have enough self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) storage for airway protection from toxic gas and harmful particulates for fighting a hazmat tanker derailment for days, conceivably? It’s essential for responding to hazardous spills.
In the event of a hazmat train derailment scenario, do not count on real-time assistance from the state or federal governments.
Reasonable Local Action
• Invest in an automatic alert system is the best way to keep local homeowners safe and prevent chaos during a derailment. Yes, it would require an extensive effort to collect the cell phone numbers of homeowners, but it would spare us a lot of regret and criticism that comes with failing to do so. Train derailments are a common occurrence.
• Work on developing a multi-agency response team and schedule annual training using real tanker cars.
• Ask CSX to sponsor training with their personnel and response subcontractors for our first responders, including disaster mitigation techniques and tabletop exercises. Include local National Weather Service personnel for their real-time weather modeling.
• Compile a set of standard procedures and best practices for homeowners in subdivisions within the danger zone of CSX’s tracks and spurs, including sheltering in place, evacuation procedures, and where to find immediate up-to-date information on how to respond. Work with homeowner associations on distributing this information to their homeowners and collecting phone numbers for the automatic alert system.
• Call or email your US Representative and US Senators asking for new regulations requiring the new electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems for all freight trains carrying hazardous materials. ECP has the potential to reduce stopping distances by as much as 60% over conventional air brake systems.
• Ask your local and state elected officials to pass resolutions in support of ECP braking systems for trains carrying hazardous materials.
• Identify elderly and disabled people living nearby who might need assistance should an evacuation become necessary.
• Create a family emergency plan (see: https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/make-a-plan.html). Review the plan annually, it could save your children’s lives should they be home alone when disaster strikes.
Read nearby Steve Brown’s interview with Emergency Management Director Captain Brian Davis of Fayette County Department of Fire and Emergency Services on train derailment response in Fayette County.
[Steve Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners. You can read all his columns by clicking on his photo below.]