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Are local departments prepared for train mishaps?

By Grace Lovins

Railroad transportation has been a common and efficient way to transport passengers and cargo for a couple of hundred years. A revolutionary creation of its time, the construction and evolution of railways has allowed for the growth of economic opportunities and communities and has tied the country together since the 19th century.

Like all modes of transportation, trains don’t come without hazards, which was demonstrated in an extreme, although rare, incident when a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the border to Pennsylvania, in the beginning of February. A train belonging to Norfolk Southern, a Class I freight railroad company, derailed from the track in East Palestine due to a suspected overheated wheel bearing. Around 38 train cars derailed from the track, causing a fire that damaged 12 cars containing hazardous materials, per the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Multiple train cars carrying the hazardous materials caught on fire. Officials working the scene, fearing the cars would explode, conducted a controlled burn of the materials to avoid an even bigger disaster. Since then, local residents have complained of various health issues and are skeptical of tests that have shown the area is safe in terms of contaminations in soil and water.

Emergency officials in East Palestine were not warned prior to the derailment that hazardous materials would be traversing their community – an important detail which local Oakland County emergency officials contend they encounter on a daily basis. While trains chug along railroad lines along the eastern boundaries of Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills several times a day, officials are never informed of the contents of those train cars. Those train cars could hold hazardous toxins, or boxes of shoes.

Emergency crews train constantly for the horrific possibility of a derailment or hazardous spill. The last major derailment dealt with locally was August 29, 1999, when a CN freight train derailed carrying 97 cars, of which approximately 40 cars derailed within Birmingham's almost three miles of train tracks and neighboring Bloomfield Township. Birmingham Fire Chief Paul Wells said, “Thankfully no one was hurt, nor were there any hazardous chemicals released. Since the derailment, Birmingham and its OAKWAY mutual aid partners have increased their abilities when responding to these types of emergencies.”

OAKWAY, a mutual aid consortium to provide support and back up amongst fire departments, consists of 11 full-time area fire departments: Southfield, Royal Oak, Madison Heights, Ferndale, Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield Township, Waterford, Rochester Hills, Farmington Hills, and Independence Township.

The East Palestine derailment has reshaped the lives of those living nearby and has drawn nationwide attention to the railroad industry and its safety practices. Residents living near railroad tracks have expressed concerns over the potential for an event like this to happen in their own community. The disaster has also sparked political debate over safety regulations.

Since February 3 of this year, Norfolk Southern has had multiple other trains derail across the country – fortunately not causing the spill of hazardous materials or damage to the extent seen in East Palestine. On March 4, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Clark County, Ohio, causing 28 cars to derail from its tracks. On March 14, the state of Ohio filed a lawsuit against the Norfolk Southern railroad to make sure it pays to clean up

all environmental damages caused by the East Palestine derailment.

One of the company’s trains traveling through Van Buren Township, Michigan, derailed on February 16 of this year. The Van Buren Police Department and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) stated there was no evidence of hazardous material being spilled or leaked.

A derailment, which occurs when a train runs off the tracks, is not an uncommon event in the rail industry, but only in rare cases do these incidents cause injuries, deaths or extreme environmental damage. With 99 percent of all shipments reaching their destinations safely, according to the American Association of Railroads, trains are considered to be the safest way of transporting hazardous materials.

While train accidents and derailments have decreased significantly over the years, they’re surprisingly still fairly common. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the number of train accidents per year has trended downward since 2000. Still, the average of train derailments each year amounts to roughly 1,700, the Poynter Institute said.

East Palestine, Ohio, is one of the more extreme derailments to occur in the last few decades, but it has opened the door for nationwide critique and questioning regarding the safety of railways, especially if the train involved is carrying hazardous materials.

Train accidents can occur for a variety of reasons – whether it is due to equipment malfunctions, issues with the tracks or signals, or because the train is traveling at the wrong speeds. At the end of 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration reported that over one third of all train accidents in the United States were due to human error. Per National Public Radio, human error was the leading cause of derailments in 2022, and according to Federal Railroad Administration data, broken or defective railroads are another common reason trains derailed from the tracks.

When train accidents and derailments do occur, they can have a wide variety of potential consequences, like damage to property, damage to the environment and negative impacts on human physical and emotional health. Part of why the recent derailment was so severe was due to the release of hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene.

Vinyl chloride, noted the National Cancer Institute, is a colorless gas that is primarily used to make polyvinyl chloride, a hard-plastic resin used in things like pipes, wires, packaging materials and cable coatings. Exposure to the substance is associated with increased risks of developing liver, brain and lung cancers, the National Cancer Institute reported. All of the chemicals being transported were toxic but are used in the production of everyday items, they noted.

According to Donna Kashian, professor and director of environmental science at Wayne State University, the environmental and human health implications following an accident heavily depend on the type of chemical that is released and the state those chemicals are in.

“Immediately following a derailment, the potentially most dangerous release would be one that is airborne as it has the potential to leave the crash site and travel rapidly through the air,” Kashian said. “Some gasses, like we saw in East Palestine, are heavier than air so [they] creep along the ground and could seep into basements.”

Since the derailment in East Palestine, residents in the area have reported burning throats, bloody noses, skin rashes, nausea and vomiting which are all common symptoms of chemical exposure per the World Health Organization.

In the days after the accident, officials handling the scene decided to conduct a controlled burn, or controlled release, of vinyl chloride found in some of the train cars, in order to avoid an explosion which potentially could have caused even more damage. The controlled burn of the vinyl chloride was the correct course of action in this case, said Kashian, but the burning of chemicals can result in secondary compounds.

“When chemicals are burned, their properties can change and sometimes it results in compounds that are less toxic or chemicals that are more toxic. In this case, the fire released phosgene which is actually a chemical that was used in World War I. It causes eye irritation, a dry burning throat and vomiting,” she said.

Toxins or chemicals spilled into an environment, though, are not just limited to the area where they are spilled. In the case of East Palestine, two streams – Sulfur Run and Leslie Run –were hit the worst, says, and the contaminated waters wiped out thousands of amphibians, aquatic insects and fish. The streams ultimately connect to the Ohio River, which could pose threats to aquatic life outside the initially impacted area if the chemicals were to move downstream, Kashian said. reports that there have been indications of spilled hazardous material settling into the sediment at the bottom of streams and rivers, which can remain in the environment for a long time. As noted by Kashian, if the chemicals move through the air or water, or even track on the movement of animals and humans, over time they can move through the food chain, posing additional long-term implications.

Norfolk Southern and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have conducted several tests on soil, air and water to identify contaminated areas. Around February 12, the EPA stated they had not found any contaminants at concerning levels and did not find breaches of quality in over 500 homes they assessed. The Ohio EPA reported that two contaminants were detected in some tributaries to the Ohio River and said they believe treatment processes can filter them out.

The aftermath procedures of a derailment or train accident can involve several state and federal agencies depending on the severity of the incident. In the case of East Palestine, the Department of Transportation (DOT), EPA, FEMA, Ohio EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Department of Health and Human Services all responded to the crash, either to help with assessing the environmental damage and threat to human health, or by providing medical care to residents experiencing any symptoms of chemical exposure.

The various federal agencies helping to assess and treat environmental damage and human health concerns began working in the weeks after the incident took place. In the immediate aftermath of a railroad derailment, though, the Federal Railroad Administration has procedures in place the railroad companies are required to follow to determine the necessary response which could include an investigation.

Railroads are required to report accidents and incidents to the Federal Railroad Administration through the National Response Center when they occur, says William Wong of the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Public Affairs. The administration then decides if an investigation will be launched based on certain criteria on the severity of the incident.

“In general, Federal Railroad Administration investigates all accidents involving casualties, hazmat spills or releases, and derailments that cause significant damage among other criteria,” Wong shared.

The derailment in East Palestine drew a lot of public attention to the rail industry, especially from those who live next to or around a railroad themselves. Residents are beginning to question the possibility of something similar happening in their own backyard. The Class I freight railway, Canadian National (CN) Railway, runs locally through miles of Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills.

Local emergency departments have prepared for a potential train incident through extensive training in conjunction with state agencies and CN. The company’s media relations advisor Julian Bédard offered that safety is a core value at the company, and they provide a variety of resources to enhance safety and preparedness of first responders should an accident occur.

“Should an incident happen, local first responders are called to the scene. They are in charge of the scene until they deem it safe. At this point, CN’s environmental and engineering team will go to the site to start remediation. CN is a member of TransCAER (Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response), a voluntary outreach effort committed to assisting communities in preparing for and responding to any rail emergency,” Bédard shared.

“Through the program, CN reaches out to communities to bring critical training to emergency responders, such as classroom training, exercise on CN 911 training tank car, Railroad Emergency Response Course, and many more,” he continued.

Birmingham and Bloomfield Township fire departments have completed hours of training in preparation to handle a train accident. While CN conducts outreach to help emergency services prepare for an accident, all firefighters in the state of Michigan are already required to complete basic hazardous materials training, said Bloomfield Township Fire Chief John LeRoy.

On top of the mandated hazardous materials training for each firefighter, local departments have long-established partnerships with other departments to assist in an emergency response. Bloomfield Township and Birmingham are both partners in OAKWAY – part of Michigan’s Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS). MABAS is a system designed to streamline the requesting and provision of emergency and fire services resources across Michigan, per their website, for day-to-day mutual aid and large scale events – including train derailments.

Birmingham and Bloomfield Township have a signed interlocal agreement for the mutual protection of people and property within the jurisdictions, said Birmingham Assistant Fire Chief Matt Bartalino. The municipality initially responds to emergencies and then determines if any additional resources are needed from OAKWAY. Each department has a little bit of equipment for a small emergency, said LeRoy, then OAKWAY has a significant amount of other resources the departments have pooled together.

“We have two OAKWAY HazMat trucks and then we also have a pod, like a storage pod, that can be transported to different places with additional equipment. If you’re talking a train derailment, depending on how big of a scale of an incident it is and what the material is that’s involved, we may or may not have enough resources to do it, but that’s when we would call in either what we call MABAS – which we would call Macomb County, Wayne County, even MABAS 3201, which is the North Oakland County with paid on-call, volunteer fire departments – they have additional resources,” LeRoy explained.

The HazMat trucks available through OAKWAY, with one being stationed at a Birmingham fire station, have equipment that can mitigate the release of several different types of hazardous materials such as chlorine, ammonia, flammable and combustible materials, and more, according to Bartalino. Birmingham's Chief Wells also noted in a statement that the Birmingham Fire Department houses a 660-gallon foam concentrate trailer in Fire Station 1 that is designed to quickly extinguish liquid hazardous material fires.

Through the mutual aid group, firefighters serving as team members on the HazMat and Technical Rescue teams also receive additional hours of training.

“All firefighters are HazMat trained by the state of Michigan under what they call the operations level, and then what the [OAKWAY] HazMat team members do is they take it one step further and go up to what they call either the technician and, on top of that, there is a specialist level,” LeRoy said. “They have an additional 40 or 80 hours of HazMat training to be on the teams. With that, they train on a monthly basis either on different scenarios or equipment, things like that, so they train every month for a couple hours on top of it.”

Bartalino notes that OAKWAY provides an additional 40 hours of hazardous materials and technical training to firefighters who are part of the group’s HazMat and tech teams.

Chief of Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Jeffrey Gormley and Captain Dustin Lockard say the public should know that the department is prepared in the case of a train emergency. While Bloomfield Hills is not a part of OAKWAY, they belong to another mutual aid group: MABAS Division 3201, Oakland County North.

MABAS 3201 consists of 29 fire and public safety departments, as shown on their website, including Bloomfield Hills Public Safety, Oxford Fire Department, Oak Park Public Safety, Walled Lake Fire Department, Troy Fire Department, Oakland Township Fire Department and Farmington Public Safety.

Like Birmingham and Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills has equipment on hand to mitigate small scenarios of hazardous material leaks. If the department’s resources are not enough to handle the situation, MABAS 3201 equipment and resources would be called to help.

“We don’t carry enough for a large level, that’s really where those specialized teams come in. We do carry some equipment to stop small leaks and spills. There’s a system in place for requesting that assistance [from MABAS] and really, it’s quite simple on our end. We just make the request and then those units will respond,” Lockard said.

The group has three specialized teams for hazardous materials, technical rescue and incident management. Oakland County Hazardous Materials Response Team-MABAS 3201, is equipped with seven vehicles and two trailers, and maintains $2 million worth of specialized HazMat and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) equipment.

Local departments are well equipped with training and resources to respond to a train emergency, but, noted CN’s Bédard, the railroad company does not provide information about what hazardous materials the trains are carrying to the departments preemptively. Only after an accident occurs does the department have any necessary information about what the train was carrying to help with their response.

CN Railways, says Bédard, does not disclose which products move on which lines or disclose volumes and transport times for security reasons. However, approximately 90 percent of the material shipped by CN are not dangerous goods, according to Bédard. Each train is equipped with a list of what hazardous materials are in the train cars.

“Each train has a manifest, like a plane. The engineer on site has that manifest on the train and then also we can make contact with the railway through the emergency lines to get exactly what that train is hauling,” said LeRoy. “Each car is also marked, using a placarding system, with what material a train car is carrying.”

Railroad companies, CN included, also offer an app that provides first responders with necessary information about the train’s cargo in the event an accident does occur. The app, AskRail, is a safety tool that provides immediate access to accurate, timely data about what type of hazardous material a car is carrying to help first responders make an informed decision about how to respond, CN explained.

The Birmingham Fire Department, the OAKWAY HazMat Team, and the additional mutual aid partners involved in OAKWAY all have access to the AskRail app, said Bartalino. Bloomfield Hills' Lockard noted that Bloomfield Hills Public Safety, as well as Oakland County Hazardous Response Teams, part of MABAS 3201, also have access to the app.

In the case of East Palestine, the National Transportation Safety Board has acknowledged that an overheated wheel bearing seems to have caused the train to derail from the tracks – a common cause of train derailments. This crash in particular pointed out holes in federal safety regulations.

Following the derailment, the Department of Transportation has urged the rail industry to implement new inspection technologies, but “without seeking permission to abandon human inspections.” Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, calling on the rail industry to take immediate steps to improve safety, has stated that waiver requests around automated track inspections have been framed by the industry as a false dichotomy between the two, but both human and automated inspections are needed to keep the railroads safe. Railroad companies can petition for waivers of any rule or regulation, according to the Code of Federal Regulations.

The American Association of Railroads explained that automated track inspections advance safety and outperform manually performed inspections. Automated track inspections use lasers and cameras mounted onto the train cars to inspect that track as the train is traveling. The association argues that these inspections would reduce track-caused derailments and speed up the inspection process.

On the other hand, lawmakers and Buttigieg have accused the rail industry of prioritizing profits over the safety of railroad workers and the public. Union members have additionally criticized the practice of precision railroading – streamlining operations which can hinder thorough safety inspections, said Freight Railwaves.

According to numerous reports, the Norfolk Southern train involved in the accident, although carrying a heavy load of hazardous materials that were released, did not meet the current Federal Railroad Association weight standards which would have required specialized train cars and braking systems to enhance safety. Trains considered “high-hazardous flammable” cannot travel faster than 50 miles per hour and must have newer braking equipment.

Two House lawmakers, Chris Deluzio (D-PA) and Ro Khanna (D-CA), introduced a bill that would tighten these regulations from the current requirement – 20 consecutive cars, or 35 cars total – to one car containing any material from an expanded hazardous materials list that includes more than just flammable liquids.

An accident or derailment resulting in the release of hazardous materials is rare, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. Derailments that have occurred since East Palestine involving hazardous materials, including Van Buren Township and Springfield, have not resulted in the release of those toxic materials into the air, soil or water. About 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destinations without release caused by a train accident, according to the American Chemistry Council.

Since the disaster in East Palestine, Buttigieg has created a reform package containing several proposals to improve the safety precautions of the country’s railroads, as noted on the DOT website.

Buttigieg, among other politicians, have called for paid leave for railroad employees and the increase of crew size to two individuals. According to Nick Little, director of railway education at Michigan State University, research suggests that two-person crews may not have the intended effect on safety and preventing accidents. The American Association of Railroads (AAR) states that two-person crews for Class I freight railroads has recently been the industry practice for most over-the-road mainline operations, but non-Class I freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains operate with just one person.

“There is research that has been done which actually says with a two-man crew on the locomotive, there is actually more chance of the crew missing something than if one person is there,” Little said. “One assumes that they get talking to each other or they get to a situation where each assumes the other has seen and will deal with something, and in the rest of the world, a one person operation of trains, even at the very high speed passenger trains, is abundantly standard.”

The American Association of Railroads cites a study published in 2021, by Oliver Wyman, that reports that accident data establishes “no safety-based justification for staffing a second crew-member in the locomotive cabin.” The data analyzed compared European railways, where it is common to have one individual operating the locomotive, to U.S. railways, and concluded there is no basis to say two-person crews are safer than one-person crews.

The recent crash has also reignited conversations about a requirement for trains to have electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes. In 2015, under the Obama administration, a safety rule was adopted requiring high-hazard flammable trains to install ECP brakes, which would allow them to brake faster. The regulation was repealed in 2018, after the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the cost for the brakes wouldn’t outweigh the expected benefits, according to the Department of Transportation.

Buttigieg and other politicians, including Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, have urged Congress and the Biden administration to reinstate this rule. In an interview with The Washington Post, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy explained that, because the suspected cause of the East Palestine derailment was due to an overheated wheel-bearing, electronically controlled pneumatic brakes might have minimized damage but would not have prevented the crash altogether.

Although Homendy has publicly called out those turning the accident into a political issue, the focus from lawmakers has resulted in several bill proposals aimed at enhancing safety in the railroad industry. Just a month after the East Palestine derailment, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and Republican Senator J.D. Vance, both of Ohio, along with four other senators. Under the act, railroads would be required to create disaster plans as well as alert local emergency response agencies about hazardous materials traveling through their states, as opposed to only after an accident takes place. A requirement forcing crews to have two members is also a provision of the bill – something that is also called for by Buttigieg.

Limits set on train size and weight required to be set by regulators is also included in the bill, on top of increasing the maximum fine for safety violations that are enforced by the DOT. The requirements included in the bill mirror a number of the calls for improvement by Buttigieg.

Norfolk Southern has also faced scrutiny due to the wide placement of sensors that can warn a train crew about imminent derailments. Before the Norfolk Southern derailment, the train had passed several detectors placed on the tracks to sense overheated wheel-bearings. The train had not yet reached the town before the wheel-bearing overheated, causing the derailment.

The problem was that the train would have needed to travel another 20 miles before reaching another sensor. Reports indicated that an alarm sounded when temperatures reached critical levels, but when the crew hit the brakes, the wheel-bearing broke and the train derailed from the tracks.

MSU’s Little said expanding the use of technology would help to improve safety by providing indications of when to take action before something actually breaks. Drawing a comparison to airplanes after recently traveling, he noted that the technology exists to continuously monitor the status of the craft.

“The airplane I traveled on had 400 people on board. It was a twin engine plane and each one of those engines has sensors in them that are continually relaying the status of the engine back to not only the pilot but also to the company that owns the plane, and also to the manufacturer of those engines so that you’ve got three sets of analyses taking place to determine when something is running out of tune,” Little said.

“You could draw a parallel with the same to the hot box detectors on the railway. The hot axel or hot bearing detectors don't have a current way of communicating details of every axel that passes them, then assessing those details against when that axel was last recorded passing over the detector so that you can actually see, ‘Oh, this one’s starting to increase in temperature. We should do something about it,’” he continued.


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