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Contents of rail cars concern officials

(The following article by Michael Erb was posted on the Marietta Times website on March 12.)

PARKERSBURG, WVa. -- Local officials say they have no way to track what hazardous materials are being transported through the Mid-Ohio Valley via train, but said local agencies still are prepared in the event of a toxic spill.

Officials with local emergency management agencies say dozens of cars loaded with potentially hazardous chemicals and materials travel through the area every day, but local agencies have no way of knowing what is on those trains without seeing the actual cars.

“There are so many carriers with so many different materials that go through the area, that would just be too enormous to track,” said Roger Bibbee, emergency operations planner for Wood County.

“As far as I know we don’t track them,” said Jeff Lauer, director of the Washington County Emergency Management Agency. “From a response side, that becomes a series of ‘if’s, and’s and but’s’ depending on what gets spilled where.”

In the event of a spill, Lauer said, local emergency response agencies would follow guidelines for dealing with hazardous materials. The main emphasis would be on identifying the chemical or chemicals spilled, the level of public exposure, and whether residents would need to shelter-in-place or be evacuated.

In most cases, Bibbee said, responders would have to visually identify the warning placards located on the train cards. Federal law requires any vehicle carrying a hazardous material to display the color-coded signs, which can instantly tell a responder if the substance is toxic, flammable or corrosive.

“We have an emergency response guide database we use,” Bibbee said. “You would identify the material, look it up (in the database) and follow the instructions listed by the chemical manufacturer.”

But Bibbee said executing those actions relies on someone being able to see and identify the warning placards.

“You have to be able to see it,” he said.

Both Bibbee and Lauer said area agencies rely on railroad company CSX to keep records of toxic materials being moved along local train lines. In the case of an emergency, CSX would be contacted to give an inventory of materials and to contact the company whose freight was being transported.

In the past, CSX and other transportation companies have declined to make freight inventories public, citing concerns specific rail lines might be targeted for acts of terrorism. As a result, there potentially is a delay in response in the case of an accident.

“There could be times you just couldn’t get close enough to the lines to see” the warning placards to identify the chemicals being transported, Lauer said. “In those cases, we would rely on CSX to keep those inventories.”

Several calls to Bob Sullivan, regional spokesman for CSX, were not returned Thursday and Friday. Calls to Gary Sease, national spokesman for CSX, were directed to Sullivan.

The issue of potentially “toxic” trains in populated areas is not a new one. Several high profile accidents in recent years have brought the issue into the public spotlight. In February, a train derailed in Handley, W.Va., forcing the evacuation of 500 residents. Twenty-two cars went off the track, 11 of which contained potentially hazardous materials. Though no one was injured in the accident or subsequent cleanup, officials at Charleston, which is about 25 miles from Handley, feared they would have to evacuate the state capital in the case of a leak or explosion.

Bibbee said the location of a train derailment locally also could complicate matters. In areas such as Williamstown where residents live on both sides of the railroad tracks, some people could find themselves trapped between the wreck and the river, cut off from the rest of the town.

“In most cases a shelter-in-place would probably work, but if not you have a responsibility to get those people out,” Bibbee said.

“In those cases it would be a matter of where the wreck was and whether you could move people to the north or south” along the river, he said. “It certainly does complicate things.”

Officials said while rail cargo traveling through the area is a concern, there likely is more danger from the number of trucks carrying hazardous materials. Lauer said more trucks travel through a broader area each day, making possible containment and response to an accident more difficult.

“In my opinion, the trucks are more of a concern than the railroad,” Lauer said. “With the trains you can pre-plan. It is going to happen somewhere along this track. The truck traffic can be almost anywhere in or outside of town. In many cases they could be hauling mixed loads (of chemicals) in trucks. It is a little more difficult to deal with.”

Also, Lauer said the valley has not had to deal with a major train accident or spill in recent years.

“We’ve never really dealt with a major train issue in this area,” he said. “On this side of the river we have mostly coal trains going through town, but a wreck on the Williamstown side could just as easily affect Marietta.

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen.”

Monday, March 12, 2007

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