How safe are our railways?

Recent derailment highlights danger of chemical transport

August 15, 2013 at 8:44 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

How safe are our railways?
After a recent train derailment in St. Landry Parish resulted in the release of an estimated 43,000 gallons of chemicals and forced the evacuation of 250 area residents, railways in other areas of the state are receiving more scrutiny.

St. Charles Parish has five railroad thoroughfares - more than any other parish in Louisiana - that carry a variety of freight including toxic chemicals.

Given that many of the rail lines running through the parish were in place before most roads were built and ahead of the industrialization of the parish, numerous homes are located within close proximity of the train tracks. If there was an accident, it could easily result in homeowners being exposed to hazardous chemicals. However, St. Charles Parish Emergency Operations Center (EOC) officials said the potential for a train derailment resulting in a serious chemical spill is low.

Over the past decade there have been two derailments in St. Charles Parish.

The last train derailment occurred in 2010 in the Ormond section of Destrehan and forced the evacuation of 15 homes. That train was carrying soybean oil and aniline, an oily, poisonous chemical used to make dyes, plastics and some medicines. No one was reported as being injured in that incident.

EOC Director Ron Perry said there are strict speed limits on trains traveling through the area, which has resulted in fewer derailments in St. Charles Parish.

“I think one of the things we have going for us here is that we benefit from low speeds. It is mainly going through residential areas so they follow their own internal speeds and they often have to stop for drop offs,” he said.

The EOC has mapped out zones in both a two-mile radius and a five-mile radius around industrial sites in the parish. If an incident should occur at one of those sites, the EOC already has all of the information about who lives in the area, what at-risk populations will need assistance evacuating and where traffic should be stopped.

Dealing with the risk of a moving train carrying hazardous materials is much different.

Emergency Coordinator Steve Sirmon said there are numerous variables in the case of a derailment, but the EOC has a computer model that allows them to focus on spots along railways that may be affected in the case of a derailment.

“The problem with rail lines is that a derailment can occur anywhere along that line, so it is impossible to set fixed traffic access control. You have to react as necessary,” he said. “What we have done is create a half-mile zone around each rail line.”

Sirmon said they can identify those living along the tracks should a derailment occur and are able to plan evacuations as necessary.

“I can take that circle and get a population within that overlay and then start looking at businesses, daycares, churches, hospitals, anything within that zone,” he said.

Perry said due to the potential danger of a derailment, his office has increased their attention to train traffic in the parish.

“When something happens somewhere that has applicability to our parish we will sit down and discuss and determine the appropriate method for addressing that particular situation,” he said.

In November, the EOC plans on participating in a drill with the Union Pacific Railroad and Dow that will mimic a train derailment and spill.

Perry said the risk of a derailment or other industrial accident is a necessary evil of hosting industrial plants within the parish.

“There is some risk that comes with the industrialized products that we all benefit from. We all use these products, so if people didn’t want the products or if society took the position that these things were too dangerous then we wouldn’t do them,” he said. “So we balance risk with the reward of having an industrialized, advanced society.”

View other articles written Kyle Barnett

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