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Recent CSX Derailment Renews Concern Over

By Robert E. Martin
TThe Recent CSX Train Grain Car Derailment - Photo by Bob Martin
The recent derailment of two CSX Railroad grain cars on the train tracks

running along Niagara street in Old Town Saginaw renews concern about the

overall subject of train safety as a means of commercial transportation.
Derailments occur at a frequency that is more than disquieting, especially

given the nature of many hazardous and toxic chemicals that are transported

via train.
The most serious train derailment in the tri-cities occurred back on July

22, 1989 when a CSX train with tanker cars containing styrene,

acrylonitrile, chlorine, styrene monomer, inhibited methylcholorosilanes,

acrylic acid, petroleum naphtha, paraformaldehyde, and ethyl chloride went

off the tracks in Freeland.
The disaster affected 400 people with reported estimates of those affected

reaching as high as 3,000 individuals.
At the time of that derailment, the biggest concern existed not with the

individual chemicals transported so much as what could happen with the

synergistic effect if the compounds interacted with each other in

During the time of that Freeland derailment, Dr. Fred Miller, Director of

Health & Safety at the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

explained to the Review:

"The biggest potential for disaster existed with the acrylonitrile and

silane that was being transported. Silane was identified by a railroad

study conducted by Karch & Associates as among the most dangerous chemicals

transported along the rail line."
According to Miller, the railways at one time attempted to remove these

cars from their 'regular cargo'.  They wanted a 'flagout', which means a

special train involving speeds under 30 mph and the use of buffer cars

around the chemical car. Flagouts also involve special routing around

railyards and population centers.
12 kinds of silanes were listed among the most dangerous chemicals, and

methylchlorasilane - the type that derailed in Freeland back in 1989 - was

among them.
However, the Interstate Commerce Commission denied the request by the rail

companies to charge special rates for the flagouts, in effect forcing them

to carry these chemicals with regular cargo.
In the 11 years since that disaster, the situation has not changed.
A medium size chlorine car is about 48 tons and a large one averages 90

tons. According to Miller, who sits on the local Emergency Planning

Commission for Washington, D.C., a worst-case scenario for the full release

of a chlorine tank car could leave a 40-mile toxic plume over Washington,


Back in 1979 a chlorine car was involved in a derailment in Ontario and

250,000 people were evacuated.
Concluded Miller at that time, "There is nothing more essential for

emergency planning than to know what the company knows about the worst case

scenario they can pose in your community.  You should demand to know what

the worst case scenarios are for al chemicals transported in your

community, and if your local Emergency Planning Commission has not obtained

these documents they are wimps. They are not doing their job and are

covering up the dangers in your community."
While Saginaw County's Emergency Planning Commission has developed 'Cameo'

plans for various situations involving train derailments, according to

Scott Toby of Michigan State University's Right-to-Know task force, there

are only a defined number of chemicals that companies have to respond to

due to existing loopholes in right-to-know provisions.
Based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation's National

Response Center and various other sources, Susan L. Cutter and John

Tiefenbacher wrote in American Demographics that Saginaw-Bay City-Midland

experience the third largest chemical accident rate in the country.
The Chicago metro area had the most chemical accidents, clocking in with 54

between 1982 and 1986, when the study was conducted, but the tri-cities

were listed with 12 such reported accidents involving the release of acute

toxic chemicals into the air. Only 22 other metro areas in the United

States reported five or more accidents, with large metro areas like Detroit

not even appearing in the report.
35% of the accidents involving train derailments happen in the Spring &

Summer months.  And the fact that accidents are likely to happen during a

workday pose a serious problem for emergency evacuation, which none of our

local county leaders have yet to seriously address and educate the public

23% of chemical accidents occur during the transportation of chemicals, and

most of these are due to containers bursting in crashes or derailments.

During the period of this study, a total of 1,433 people were injured and

30 died as a result of chemical accidents in metro areas.
Are there answers and solutions?

Of course.
More frequent safety inspections and careful monitoring of traffic and

vehicles at transfer sites should form an important component of emergency

planning.  Combined with citizen education this would likely reduce the

vulnerability of nearby residents.
As one business owner in the old town area noted to me: "They really need

to do something about that Rust Street train bridge. Some of those trains

only go about 3 mph over that bridge when the wind is whipping-up.  And

wouldn't it be something if there was a serious derailment right near all

the hospitals."

Something to think about the next time you hear that train whistle wailing

around the bend.

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