Recent CSX Derailment Renews Concern Over TOXIC TRAINS
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 combination.
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, D.C. 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 about.
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.