Home Trains move hazardous materials through the Valley: Are we prepared for a derailment?

Trains move hazardous materials through the Valley: Are we prepared for a derailment?

train tracks
(© den-belitsky – stock.adobe.com)

Trains are moving through the Shenandoah Valley daily, from passenger trains like the Cardinal on Amtrak to excursion lines like Buckingham Branch to commodities loaded in cars that do contain high temperature and flammable cargo.

When a train carrying hazardous materials like the Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, there is potential for widespread evacuations and emergency response from fire and agencies in the event of an accident.

According to reports, more than 70 emergency agencies from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania responded to the Ohio derailment. The Environmental Protection Agency reported air had returned to normal levels approximately 6 days after the accident.

Researchers from multiple universities are doing independent studies to determine the environmental impact and long-term exposure to residents in the area. Lawsuits against Norfolk Southern are pending from affected businesses and residents as well as the U.S. Department of Justice.

“In the specific case of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, the National Transportation Safety Board continues to lead the safety investigation, and once the investigation is complete, its results will form the basis for future potential action and policy recommendations as well as all appropriate steps to hold Norfolk Southern accountable,” said the U.S. Department of Transportation in a Feb. 21 briefing.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were more than 1,100 train derailments throughout the country last year, or approximately three derailments per day.

In Virginia, there were 151 accidents and incidents in 2022 resulting in nine fatalities. Over the last decade, there have been 1,872 total accidents resulting in 132 deaths in the state. There have been four hazmat releases according to the FRA over the past 10 years, with 77 hazmat cars damaged or derailed.

With Norfolk Southern, Amtrak, Buckingham Branch and CSX using the rail lines throughout the Valley regularly, one might wonder if the Valley is prepared for a derailment, especially if hazardous materials are on the train like the case in Ohio where 20 cars were carrying hazardous materials including chloroethene, butyl acrylate, 2-ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl either, isobutylene, combustible liquids and benzene residue.

Waynesboro Assistant City Manager of Public Safety Michael D. Wilhelm responded to AFP saying his responses to us were a joint response from Wilhelm, Waynesboro Department of Emergency Management and EMS Director Gary Critzer and Waynesboro Fire Department Chief Andrew Holloway.

In 2021, Norfolk Southern notified first responders that they were transitioning away from paper consists (shipping documents) to a mobile device application called Mobile Train Reporting. This software can immediately identify rail cars, he said, containing hazardous materials, their shipping information and their current position on the train.

“It also provides emergency contact information and the specific Emergency Response Guidebook page number to first responders so they have immediate access to information about the hazardous material they are dealing with,” the statement read.

“This can help the first responder make critical response decisions before they arrive at the scene. The train crews are trained on how to share this information with first responders. This is only for Norfolk Southern Railroad and as far as I know, the other railroad companies still utilize paper consists.”

The response indicated that what is carried through Waynesboro and the Valley changes daily and “the locality is not provided with this information.”

As far as how many people might need to be evacuated in Waynesboro if a derailment occurred within the River City, the group said “that would depend on what was being carried on the train of the derailment … the type of hazardous material, its form, liquid or gas, wind direction, population density, etc.”

A lot factors into a decision like an evacuation order due to a derailment. However, the joint statement said the Waynesboro emergency leaders feel prepared for an incident like the derailment that happened in Ohio.

“Our Fire Department would be the primary point of contact for all hazardous materials incidents. We also have a regional SAW (Staunton, Augusta, Waynesboro) Emergency Operations Plan that is revised every five years to assist all of us with coordinating a regional response to a situation like this.

“Our emergency notification system can create an evacuation zone and make notifications based on this information. We would also notify the appropriate state agencies such as the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Department of Environmental Quality.”

Amtrak Senior Public Relations Manager Kimberly Woods reached out to AFP and confirmed it operates the Cardinal train three days a week between New York and Chicago. The route includes a stop in Staunton, but Amtrak trains “don’t carry hazardous materials,” she said.

The Buckingham Branch Railroad runs from Richmond to Clifton Forge passing through Afton, Waynesboro, Fishersville, Staunton and Craigsville.

“BB typically runs one local train a day five days a week in this area,” said Steve Powell with the Buckingham Brach Railroad. “The train is normally 10 to 30 cars long and has a combination of empty and loaded cars. Commodities include grain, lumber products, paper, cement and diesel exhaust fluid.

“We handle two types of hazardous materials on this route, propane (flammable) and a small quantity of creosote (high temperature).

“BB also runs excursion trains on this route,” he said.

Powell said there have been minor derailments that occur “from time to time.”

“BB has not had a significant mainline derailment on this route since we started operation in late 2005.”

He said Buckingham Branch has provided railroad-related training to local first responders to better prepare for a worst-case scenario. He said the railroad company also has arrangements with contractors to help if needed.

Like Waynesboro leaders, Powell said, there are a lot of factors that help determine if an evacuation due to a derailment or accident is needed.

“As far as evacuations go, we have never had to do that,” he said. “There are emergency response standards that are utilized that consider many factors such as commodity, is it leaking, wind, quantity, etc. that are utilized in determining if an evacuation is necessary. These decisions are made in consultation with local authorities.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announced a three-part plan to enhance rail safety and accountability earlier this year.

A fact sheet on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website reads in part: “In the early 2010s we saw a number of high-profile freight rail incidents across the U.S. and Canada, including one that left nearly 50 people dead. Those events led to the passage of significant new rail safety rules – over strong opposition from industry.

“Since those changes, there has been real improvement; derailments decreased by 15 percent, and lives were certainly saved. But today, there are still over a thousand derailments every year – proof that the freight rail industry can and must do more.”

“Profit and expediency must never outweigh the safety of the American people,” said Buttigieg. “We at USDOT are doing everything in our power to improve rail safety, and we insist that the rail industry do the same – while inviting Congress to work with us to raise the bar.”

The USDOT called on the freight industry to protect workers who spot safety issues from reprisal, deploy new inspection technologies, phase in safer tank cars, provide paid sick leave and provide advance notification to emergency response teams when they are transporting hazardous gas tank cars through their states.

“USDOT is also pursuing further requirements in this area, but railroads should not wait,” the statement read.

While this was a call to action issued nearly three months ago, based on the response from local emergency responders, it doesn’t appear that they are being notified about what is moving through the area, at least not yet.

Federal Railroad Administration Public Affairs Specialist Cory Gattie said the long-term trend has been positive showing “a healthy decline in accidents over the last decade.”

“Despite this, there is obviously always room for improvement and, as a regulatory agency whose primary mission is improving safety, we are continually focused on how we can move the needle,” Gattie said.

CSX and Norfolk Southern did not return our request for information.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.