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Hazard on the railroad - a catastrophe in the making?

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

In the United States (US), significant volumes of hazardous material (hazmat) are moved in bulk each year. Much of the material cannot be moved by pipeline, so alternatives are plane, road or rail. Air freight cannot move the vast quantities needed and presents a range of safety issues, and the road is unfavourable due to the significant risk of collision, and again the quantities involved. Statistically, rail is safest to move hazardous material and has long been the default method of transport. Earlier this year, USA Today reported “for every rail leak reported last year, there were two involving planes and 67 on highways”. However, these involve far smaller quantities to those moved by rail.

In the past decade, US federal rail incident reports indicate more than 5,000 incidents of hazardous material spilling or leaking from trains either in transit, or stationery in rail yards. The injuries from these incidents are usually in small numbers – of 330 spills in 2022 only 6 people were injured. These risks are considered low on a railway network moving over 2-million rail cars of chemicals each year. Separately, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and non-profit groups track chemical accidents in the US, whether train derailments, truck crashes, leaks or spills. These incidents take place across the country and are not concentrated in any region/s – but they are occurring on average every two days.

However, this is where the records on US hazardous cargo movements start to become difficult to navigate. Train operators are required to self-report to the US Federal Rail Administration and other US federal agencies, making verification of the information difficult. State regulations also come into effect, where in some states, materials are not considered hazardous, but they travel through states which consider them to be. The outcome is an absurd lack of information on hazardous material in transit. In the example of the incident in Ohio (Feb 2023), the train was not categorized as a “high-hazardous material train”, meaning there was no requirement to notify state officials of the chemicals being transported across multiple state borders.

The Class-1 US railroad network runs through vast open spaces and plains, which is where two high-profile incidents this year have taken place. However, the railroad network also passes directly through or very close to dense urban areas including many cities in the US. In 2005, two Norfolk Southern trains collided in Graniteville, South Carolina while carrying pressurised chlorine gas, sodium hydroxide and cresol. The subsequent toxic plume of chlorine gas killed 9 and thousands were evacuated from their homes and businesses. It took Hazmat teams almost 2 weeks to decontaminate the immediate area of the crash. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident.

The incidents

In February 2023, authorities carried out a controlled explosion on a cargo of toxic chemicals following a major train derailment in Ohio, USA. The cargo comprised of 150 freight cars was being transported by Norfolk Southern, a US rail freight operator. Since February, there have been several serious incidents involving hazardous substances which have made international headlines. Each of these incidents has raised questions over safety and recording the movement of hazardous substances in the US, including how well regulated the industry is and how well-equipped first responders are for dealing with the incidents when the occur.

The derailment in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio (pop. 4,700) occurred at 9pm on 3rd February. Wreckage of the 150-car freight train burned for days leading to a toxic plume of smoke, with images and live video swamping news feeds, but the main concern is what was burning. The train was carrying a mix of hazardous materials including:

- Vinyl chloride – a known carcinogen, this colourless and flammable gas is used to price polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Exposure symptoms include drowsiness, disorientation, numbness, tingling of extremities and nausea. It is also an irritant to the eyes and skin.

- Butyl acrylate – colourless with a strong odour this is used to produce plastics, coatings, polymers and resins. Exposure symptoms include eye and skin irritation, rashes and breathing difficulties.

- Isobutylene – another colourless gas used in the production of plastics and resins. Norfolk Southern (the train operator) reported no sign of breach to the containers carrying this chemical. Exposure symptoms include dizziness and headaches.

- Ethylene glycol & ethylhexyl acrylate – the latter is a colourless liquid that is used to produce plastics and polymers. Ethylene glycol is a synthetic compound used in ink, paint, hydraulic fluids and antifreeze. Exposure symptoms of both include eye and skin irritation, sore throats, and nausea with exposure to larger concentrations.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the cause of the derailment reviewed video footage and recorder data from the train and surrounding sources. The investigation came to focus on an “overheating wheel bearing”, described as being “in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment”, along with several witness accounts indicating glowing or flames from the train for several miles in the lead up to the derailment. In fact, overheating axles and bearings on these 2-mile-long behemoths are a common occurrence to the extent that specialist detectors are used alongside the track to identify these before failure, which often leads to derailment or fire. In the initial report from the NTSB, the chairperson Jennifer L. Homendy, notes “This was 100 percent preventable”.

There appears to have been a chain of events leading to the toxic fire which erupted seconds after the train derailed, mostly caused by the suspected wheel bearing failure and localised fire. On derailing, the chemicals spilled from the rail cars and were ignited by the significant heat from the axle. The area of devastation left scars in the Ohio landscape, leading to the evacuation of more than 5,000 people, and first responders were faced with a chemical fire of previously unknown proportions. While fire and rescue teams worked in the intense heat and toxic plume emitted from the fire, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) focused on working to protect the watercourse after discovering “fire combustion chemicals” in the Ohio River.

The Ohio River is described as “very large and it’s a water body that’s able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly” as stated by Tiffani Kavalec of Ohio EPA. However, it was necessary to follow the plume, to secure drinking water intakes while the majority of the chemicals passed by. Despite this and the water treatment operations, authorities strongly recommend people living in the area or with water sourced from the Ohio River drink from bottled water – even more so if the water source is private, such as a well. An independent review from not-for-profit water pollution scientists collected samples of groundwater and soil from ground close to the incident, finding it seriously contaminated with various compounds related to the crash.

Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources estimated at the time that 3,500 fish across 12 species died in Ohio waterways following the spill. To prevent water closest to the damaged cargo and water used to fight the fires being added to the water course, almost a million gallons have been collected and stored in containers. Pollution to the water course appears to have been significant, with authorities digging vast trenches, removing more than 400 tons of soil during the clean-up operation to reduce groundwater and soil pollution. However, the long-term effects of the spill are relatively unknown, with one water sampling lab quoted as saying “If a well is safe now, we don’t know what the quality of that water is going to be in a week, a month, or two months. It takes time for pollution to potentially travel from the source of contamination to the individual well”.

Water pollution is not the only concern. The fire was so toxic and burned so fiercely that first responders struggled to gain control of the blaze. There was limited access in the region the derailment occurred and in such a rural location, first responders were initially faced with an incident the scale of which they had never seen before. Initially, equipment and techniques were challenged, leading to a rapid escalation in requests for support from external rescue services and specialists.

In the aftermath, state officials made the decision to deliberately burn some of these toxic chemicals from five rail cars via a trench which had to be dug out. This was to reduce the risk of catastrophic accumulations of toxic vapour which threatened far more significant and destructive explosions. In doing so, hydrogen chloride and phosgene were released into the air resulting in a 1-mile evacuation zone around the crash site. The air pollution concerns remain largely unresolved not only from the initial chemical exposure but from the compounds created by burning these toxic substances. Dioxins are created when burning chemicals such as vinyl chloride - these are heavy compounds, meaning they stick to things including particles discharged in the initial blaze, then settle on property, houses, land, and animals. Dioxins are long-lived compounds because they do not break down easily and can remain active for decades. Exposure in high doses can increase the risk of organ damage or cancer. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) believes low level exposure during over a long-term has equally damaging health consequences.

A few months later, in April 2023, a shipment of approx. 30 tons of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizer and explosives, went missing while moving between Wyoming and California. The journey covered more than 1,000 miles and lasted almost two weeks, passing through several towns, cities, and states. The initial assessment indicates a leak may have started through a rail car loading gate. The shipment was being moved by Union Pacific (UP), the largest US freight train company, on behalf of an explosive manufacturer.

Union Pacific representatives self-reported the incident to federal authorities after the cargo train arrived at its destination and started an internal investigation. However, federal authorities received limited access to the rail car in question, with it commencing a return journey on the rail network before investigators had an opportunity to examine it. While the company did not suspect criminal or malicious activity, there remains no real evidence to suggest how it came to leave the rail car or at what stage in the journey it was lost, and no indication of how it will be avoided in future.

Ammonium nitrate has various uses, and the chemical is relatively harmless by itself. Combined with a fuel source and subjected to heat and pressure, it can explode, and many consider this to be a high-risk attribute. In Beirut, Lebanon (Aug 2020) a warehouse containing 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded killing more than 200 people, along with 6,000 injured and damage across a wide area of the city.

The latest high-profile hazmat incident in the US rail network (June 2023) involved a bridge collapse in rural Montana and train cars carrying hot asphalt and molten sulphur. The affected section of the Yellowstone River is around 110 miles away from Yellowstone National Park and sources have confirmed that the flow carried the toxic spill away from the park. In 2022, the Yellowstone region saw record flooding, which caused extensive damage to structures, adjacent towns, and Yellowstone National Park itself. Sources have already suggested the bridge may have been structurally compromised during the flooding and investigators are looking into when the structure was last checked.

Seven train cars have fallen into the river and the quantity of hazardous material discharged into the water is unknown. Montana Department of Environmental Quality suggested initial water sampling did not show petroleum hydrocarbons (from asphalt) or sulphur. Neither dissolve when they enter the water and despite their heat will solidify quickly when mixed with water. Modelling suggests the substances are not likely to move far downstream. This is another complex crash site, with authorities and recovery contractors cautious to prevent further contamination during the operation. Montana has recently experienced an increase in rainfall for the season, so river levels are higher and the current faster. Again, these chemicals pose a risk not only to the water course but to the air, and while limited monitoring is taking place downwind but is hampered by capability and changing conditions.

The aftermath

There is no obligation on railroad companies to share information of train movements containing hazardous substances once they leave the depot. This includes informing authorities in states through which the train will pass who do consider substances on board to be hazardous. It is not helped by the fact there is no common standard for labelling and listing hazardous chemicals in transit. During the first half of 2023 we have already witnessed three high-profile incidents on the US railroad network. Two of these are the result of serious crashes leading to extensive contamination, evacuations and multi-agency response.

On each occasion, US federal authorities rely on the transport agent/rail company to inform them of an incident via the self-reporting process. Therefore, it is only after an incident that authorities become aware of the chemicals in transit. During the Ohio incident for example, state and federal authorities were only aware of the dangers the chemicals pose once the derailment and initial blaze were well underway. This calls into question whether those moving hazardous substances thousands of miles across the country are equipped and knowledgeable of the cargo for which they have responsibility.

In 2023 alone, the impact on two large watercourses has been significant with a wildlife death toll in the thousands and in Yellowstone River it’s still early to tell. We will not know the long-term impact of these incidents for months or years to come. These incidents occurred in relatively remote areas, but these hazardous cargo trains regularly transit near and through major towns and cities. In fact, in the Yellowstone incident, the same railway passes through Billings, Montana pop. 117,500 (2021).

The future

The US has been moving hazardous substances in this way and responding to incidents like this for decades. There is growing pressure on the US rail industry to introduce increased regulation and safeguards around the transport of toxins and all high-hazard cargo. In 2015, following a lengthy advocacy process, the US Department of Transportation (DoT) released new regulations requiring new, tougher tankers for hazardous substances, including crude oil. However, the US railway network still lacks a coherent system of sharing information across local, state, and federal agencies when it comes to the transport of hazardous cargo. The industry is divided over these changes, with unions and operators pushing back against proposed legislation which includes the basic step of introducing a common labelling and tracking for hazardous substances in transit. This begs the urgent question why they would want to prevent this taking place. Diverting these long-established railroads is not an option under debate, and many agree this is not a step toward resolving the issue. If these US freight companies cannot act responsibility with such toxic cargo, the transit of toxins could be federalised.

One indisputable fact is that time and again, first responders have been challenged in dealing with the scope and type of incident, often with no indication of the substance or risk until they are involved. The risk to firefighters is very high, with many of these chemicals having significant and long-lasting health consequences at a distance, let alone being in close proximity and working to contain them. Evacuation is also a protracted situation, affected in part by the lack of information management, detection, and training.

Immediate steps to remedy some of the risks would be enhanced training and equipment for all fire districts operating near the US railroad network. In Ohio, the fire department say they were “blindsided” when Norfolk Southern contractors gave 13 minutes’ warning to the fire chief to decide whether to approve the venting of vinyl chloride because of failing daylight. Officials provided statements to the NTSB inquiry suggesting emergency departments and medical workers were “overwhelmed” at the scale of the derailment and toxic spillage. Chief Drabick, of the Fire Department has said “I don’t think you can ever really be prepared for something like this” at a hearing into the incident.

First responders require enhanced training to deal with incidents of this nature, especially as so many are volunteers. Equipment including containment, protection and monitoring are also needed to enable the initial response to be as effective as possible. The vast scope of the US rail network will still place responders some distance from the likely scene of an incident, but they won’t be faced with drafting additional resources from hundreds of miles away before being able to react. Equipping these first responders with enhanced monitoring and containment options, including ground water and water course containment would be a leap forward. This year we’ve seen a significant and avoidable amount of toxic chemicals spilled into US water courses and discharged into the air with untold environmental consequences.

The effect on the environment is a significant factor where regulators and federal agencies are beginning to focus more attention. The EPA and other federal agencies possess the ability to monitor environmental conditions after an incident. It seems a sensible next step to invest in this capability to become more proactive, detecting exposure in transit or at key routing points. This would enable trains to be diverted or halted, enabling a coordinated response ahead of a significant event. Of course, this would also limit ecological damage and protect local resources. Currently, sampling of air or water is rudimental and often occurs a considerable time after the exposure. Using a combination of remote detection, stand-off detection and uncrewed systems, US authorities could dramatically improve the detection of a leak or spillage following a derailment and reduce the danger to first responders. Scientists and academics are reviewing the existing processes for containing hazardous substances in water courses with the aim of limiting the environmental impact of these incidents. A challenge they are working to overcome is the variety and overall effect of the chemicals in transit. While all the substances mentioned have damaging consequences, their volatility and effect on the ecosystem varies. Some burn intensely and generate toxic plumes easily carried by even the lightest wind, others flow into water courses and penetrate the ground, contaminating water sources and killing plant and wildlife.

Uncredited sources at several US agencies, and some first responders, have cited a need for improvements in detection and monitoring in the aftermath of spillage or discharge to the environment, especially of hazardous substances. This should particularly focus on areas of significant risk – including the railroad network. During some incidents, handheld sensors and collectors are deployed once agencies are aware of the hazardous contents, however this is far from a first step of action upon responding. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) carry out monitoring of the watercourse to check for pollutants, but this remains a manual process. A more coherent capability would likely include an integrated platform, with alerting, identification, and dispersion modelling. This technology is already available and can be added to vehicles in attendance, remote platforms and worn by responders. Bringing all this information to first responders, and the agencies coordinating response and recovery efforts, is vital to protect lives and the environment.

Following the Ohio incident, public confidence in the transport of hazardous substances is low. Residents in East Palestine have voiced well-founded concerns now the railroad has reopened, and hazardous cargo continues to flow through their town each day. One source linked to a major US haulier “without change we face a devastating incident in a major urban area. Even those we’ve seen have resulted in local first responders being placed at unnecessary risk because the industry fails to appreciate the risk these chemicals pose in transit”.

In the US, the formation of the railroad network was designed to incorporate as many major cities as possible. This provides a crucial link for cargo and passenger transport across vast distances. Cities with a railroad carrying hazardous substances include Seattle (pop. 733,000+), Portland (pop. 641,000+), San Francisco (pop. 815,000+) and Houston (pop. 2.8+ million). While chemical processing takes place in many US states, there are some concentrated areas including California, Texas, and Ohio. Unfortunately, despite these concentrations of industry it has not provided any positive impact on the response capability of first responders, or information flow to state authorities.

Is it now a case of when, not if, a mass casualty event involving the US railroad network happens? Despite increasing public and political pressure, the US rail network is resistant to change, happy it seems to leave events to take place as and when they occur.

Information and background sources include: NTSB BBC News CNN The Guardian Associated Press The Morning Journal

© Peter Lashbrook & PELA Systems. Image copyright retained at source.

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