Emergency events suggest train towns have to be alert to what passes through on railroad routes
by Tim Lockette
Feb 09, 2014 | 3948 views |  0 comments | 39 39 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This image from ABC 33/40's Bill Castle shows the scene of a tanker train after it derailed in western Alabama outside Aliceville early on Nov. 8, 2013.
This image from ABC 33/40's Bill Castle shows the scene of a tanker train after it derailed in western Alabama outside Aliceville early on Nov. 8, 2013.
MONTGOMERY — When a train derailed and blew up outside of Aliceville last year, Pickens County emergency management director Ken Gibson knew there was probably crude oil on board — but only because a local resident had warned him.

"Someone who lives here, and works for the railroad, told me about it," said Gibson.

Pickens County, a county of about 20,000 people on the Alabama-Mississippi line, rarely appears in nationwide headlines. But it did last November, when a train carrying crude oil derailed, causing three of the train cars to explode and igniting a fire that burned for hours.

The derailment, which federal officials say is still under investigation, happened in a swampy, sparsely populated area, and no one was injured. It occurred, however, just a few months after an oil train explosion that killed 47 people in a town in Quebec. Then, about a month after the Pickens County accident, an oil train exploded after a collision outside Casselton, N.D., causing emergency officials to evacuate the town's 2,400 residents.

The three accidents have prompted federal officials to begin a review of the practice of transporting oil by train, a practice that has increased in recent years, with the boom in domestic oil production. According to the Association of American Railroads, about 400,000 railroad carloads of oil traveled on the nation's rail system in 2013, roughly the same amount transported by train in the 10 preceding years.

Gibson seems to feel that Pickens County dodged a bullet with its rail crash. Emergency responders held a train-crash-based exercise two days before the wreck. The crash happened in the woods, and not in a town.

In Calhoun County — where the rails run through populous areas such as Oxford — officials say oil and gas are among the top hazardous materials carried by train through the area. Emergency officials say Bakken crude oil, the kind of oil involved in the Quebec, Casselton and Pickens County crashes, isn’t on Calhoun County’s trains.

But they wish they had more detailed information on what those trains are carrying.

The list

In the age of terrorism, finding out what's traveling by train through your town isn't easy.

When an accident happens, first responders can contact the railroad directly to get a manifest for the train, said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees railroad safety.

If emergency management officials want to know about hazardous materials moving through an area before a crash, Flatau said, they can contact the railroads for a list of the top hazardous materials, by volume, that travel through their town. According to FRA documents, that information is available through a voluntary program, not required by law.

An official of Calhoun County's biggest railroad line, Norfolk Southern, said the railroad does release the top 25 hazardous materials to emergency officials — if they ask. It's not released to the general public for security reasons, the official said.

"It could be used to allow someone to look at specific hazardous substances along specific railroads," said Susan Terpay, a spokeswoman for Norfolk Southern.

Terpay said the railroad holds regular workshops with emergency responders to prepare them to deal with railroad accidents. One of those workshops, she said, is scheduled for Anniston in October.

Calhoun County emergency management officials say they have that list — but it's a tough thing to get, even for them.

"It's a big hassle," said Robert Heintzelman, head of the hazardous materials team for the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency. Heintzelman said railroads typically take weeks to respond to requests for the list. It's not just Norfolk Southern.

"It's a nationwide thing," said Heintzelman, who worked in Pennsylvania before coming to Calhoun County. "The railroads keep saying it's for security reasons."

Heintzelman didn't release the list to The Star, but he did say ethanol is the top hazardous material traveling through the area, by volume, in rail cars. Also on the list is gaseous petroleum, he said, a category that includes propane.

"Sometimes it's just categories like ‘elevated temperature liquids,’” he said.

Gasoline and fuel oil are in the top 25, he said, but none of it is crude oil from the Bakken oil formation in the Dakota. That type of crude is believed to be more corrosive and flammable than other types of oil, and was involved the recent train explosions in Pickens County and elsewhere.

"I've been told those shipments are mostly on the western side of the state," he said.

Still, officials worry about other hazardous materials that might be moving by rail through the area, even if they’re not among the top 25 materials.

'Both sides could do better'

Sodium cyanide isn't on the list, Heintzelman said. That substance, which can be flammable and can emit toxic fumes, was in a train that collided with another train in Talladega County near Lincoln in 2006. Nearly 2,000 people were evacuated temporarily as a result of the crash. Early reports said neither car in the wreck was breached, but a Federal Railroad Administration report shows 285 pounds of sodium cyanide was released in the crash.

That wreck occurred on a track that also comes through Calhoun County, Heintzelman said.

Multiple attempts to reach Talladega EMA director Deborah Gaither, for comment on the hazardous materials list, were unsuccessful.

In Pickens County, EMA director Gibson acknowledged he didn't have a list of the local railroad's top hazardous materials before the crash. He said no one had offered to make it available.

Calhoun County emergency management director Jonathan Gaddy said he understands security concerns, but thinks the seeking and sharing of information should be a two-way effort on the part of the railroads and local officials.

"I would say both sides could do better," he said. "Nobody has ever called me and said 'This information is available.'"

He said the top-25 list is useful, but only to a certain limit.

"Anything can happen at any time," he said. "If I prepared for the top 25, and the incident here is with No. 26 on the list, it's still a problem."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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