If a railroad tank car topples onto Apalachee Parkway and ruptures, what then happens?
PART I: HAZARDS THROUGH THE HEART
Between 2007 and 2010, there were 8,967 train accidents in the nation -- 99 in Florida.
Written by Duane Bradford. Last updated Saturday November 26th, 2011
By DUANE BRADFORD
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Ten years ago, a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and burst into flames in a populous downtown Baltimore area where, last year, another train with hazardous products derailed in an old tunnel. No casualties were reported, but the first wreck kicked off civil defense sirens for the first time in 50 years, disrupted East Coast freight traffic and paralyzed the crash area for a week.
This railroad tank car awaits movement on a side rail after having moved through Tallahassee. Unless you know the codes, it is difficult to know exactly what’s inside. CSX Transportation railroad says no chlorine or other toxic inhalents are moved through Tallahassee but won’t say publicly what is.
Nine years ago, a train derailed early one morning in Minot, North Dakota. A rail had separated. Several tankers ruptured, spewing more than 146,700 gallons of highly toxic anhydrous ammonia fumes into the air, causing a large evacuation, one death and chemical exposure injuries to a number of other people.
Six years ago in Graniteville, South Carolina nine people died and 250 others were treated for chlorine exposure following a train crash in which 90 tons of chlorine spilled, causing more than 5,000 people to flee their homes for two weeks. Between 2007 and 2010, there were 8,967 train accidents across the nation - 99 in Florida.
Some numbers. As is the case in many cities - Atlanta is an exception - trains routinely ship freight, some of it hazardous, on tracks that slice through the heart of downtown areas. In Tallahassee CSX Transportation railroad tracks snake through the heart of the city where more than 20,000 people are estimated to work or live within a one mile radius of the seat of Florida government - and thousands more east and west of that area. Those tracks also cross an overpass about 3,000 feet from Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium where as many as 86,000 people can gather during a football game.
There were 383 derailments throughout the nation in 2010 and six in Florida in 20 months ending in August. According to records of the Federal Railroad Administration, none of the Florida incidents involved hazardous materials.
But the issue, shrouded in secrecy and a general resistance and evasiveness by some state government managers to disclose emergency management details, begs for clarity about many questions, including the following:
• Exactly what kinds of hazardous products are shipped by rail through downtown Tallahassee? It is unclear about the specific nature of hazardous materials shipped by rail through the Big Bend area. Chlorine? Anhydrous ammonia? Nitric acid? Explosives? Infectious substances? Radioactive materials? The list of hazardous materials is long. Is the public entitled to know the potential threats in order to plan family options?
• Equally important, are we prepared for catastrophe? Have people, especially those thousands working in the many state and local agencies in the Capitol area, been trained as required by law about how to respond to incidents like a catastrophic rail accident in which unleashed hazardous materials could shut down government and imperil their lives?
Tallahassee Fire Department Chief Cindy Dick says that chlorine “is transported on occasion” by rail through Tallahassee. She said her department receives no advance warning of impending shipments. If such do occur, the toxic product would roll on rails across three overpasses (one of them built in 1929) through the heart of downtown Tallahassee two or three blocks from the Capitol. Trains cross a fourth overpass near Florida State and Florida A&M University territory. “We are not provided manifests beforehand,” the chief said in an email response to questions. The department would be the first to respond and command operations of such an incident.
Gary Sease, CSX Transportation spokesman, disputed Chief Dick regarding chlorine shipments. He said that the railroad “does carry certain products through Tallahassee that are by law identified as hazardous materials. These include chemicals or other commodities that are designated as flammable or corrosive.” But, he said, “those materials do not include inhalation hazard products, such as chlorine.” He would not identify products on grounds of a company security policy. Federal laws require placards on tank cars to identify products being shipped by icon and code, but this is not for advance notice purposes. Sease said the state had access to real time movements of hazardous materials, however. He said CSX had a “99.99 percent success rate” on the shipment of hazardous materials. When asked, he did not explain just how that computation was determined.
WHAT THEN HAPPENS?
To help gain a better understanding of what happens in a catastrophic incident, and how well state employees are trained by their agencies to deal with such an emergency response, a derailment scenario was invented and emailed to several state and local emergency managers and government leaders with a request to respond to written questions. The message was identified as “a fictitious (but not wildly improbable) scenario” that may help people understand how to deal with such a complex life-threatening issue. The scenario:
Three railroad train tank cars containing highly toxic chemicals are derailed one weekday afternoon at the CSX overpass on Apalachee Parkway. They topple from the tracks onto the parkway below. Two of them split open, spewing a large plume of toxic substance into the air. A warm easterly breeze begins pushing the plume west toward the Capitol where, within a radius of about a mile from that building, more than 20,000 people are estimated to be working. Almost at the instant of this, a motorist dials 911 and reports the event. What then happens?
The Tallahassee Fire Department had a quick email response. Wes Roberts, deputy chief of operations for the Tallahassee Fire Department, said the fictitious derailment scenario, if real, would cause the department to quickly trigger multiple alarms. He reeled off details about a variety of equipment and firefighters who would be dispatched to the scene.
“The initial response to this type of incident would be a full alarm Hazmat [hazardous material] response,” he said. “An event of this magnitude would quickly overtax initial responders and would send multiple alarms for other local agency and state agency support." Such an event, he said, "would require a rapidly escalating command structure to manage many needs that can arise - including fire rescue, law enforcement, emergency management, railroad liaison, health department and shelter coordination.”
At some early point during such an event a decision would be made to order people in the immediate area to either evacuate or shelter in place. That decision would be made after an on-site evaluation plus a review of the tank car product from a manifest that the train crew is required to give to the incident commander. This is where a comprehensive response plan comes into play in which, among other things, state agencies have been directed to train employees who are not emergency managers exactly what to do in such a disaster.
How people in harm’s way receive that “shelter/evacuate” message in this area is not clear. Some communities notify people in any disaster zip code area by way of a direct cell, smartphone or land phone call. Specific emergency response information and instructions come by way of several systems, one of which is known as “Reverse 911.” People who wish to receive such emergency information may request that their phone numbers be added to the emergency notification database. Leon County does not have a Reverse 911 notification system. Chris Rietow, a senior planner with the 10-county Apalachee Regional Planning Council, said he was unaware of any such emergency call systems in the Big Bend area. Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Carol Ellerbe, who was asked about this nine years ago, recently said, “We’ve been talking about it.”
NEXT: It has been nine years since the Florida Legislature ordered all 38 state agencies to develop what is called “Continuity of Operations Planning” - COOP - to protect employees and help keep essential government operations running in the face of a man-made or natural catastrophe. Today, not all of the agencies have an approved plan.