Thursday, March 16, 2023

Tips from the Society of Environmental Journalists for tracking hazardous-materials shipments along rail lines

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6, 2013, after an oil-tanker train derailed
in the town center. (Photo from Sûreté du Québec, Wikimedia Commons)
Before last month's train derailment and explosions in East Palestine, Ohio, why didn't the town's residents know there were hazardous materials on the train? Easy. "The public is not allowed to know," reports Joseph A. Davis for the Society of Environmental Journalists. "That’s the effect of 2008 federal regulations. . . . Those rules let states decide to keep the routing of trains carrying hazmat secret — although they require the federal government to inform the states. . . . Under existing rules, the train that derailed in Ohio wasn’t enough of a potential hazard to merit routing disclosure to anyone. . . . A few states do disclose some of the info. That’s not enough."

Finding rail hazmat routes begins with knowing what you're looking for: "There are many kinds of hazardous materials carried by rail. Crude oil is hazardous, but it may not be the most hazardous thing rolling through your community," Davis writes. "Because public concern was focused on oil trains, the Department of Transportation created a category called high-hazard flammable trains, and focused regulatory action on that. The train that derailed in Ohio was not an HHFT."

Davis notes, "In response to the Ohio spill, several Congress members have already introduced bills to tighten up rail hazmat regulations. But none make it easier for the public to know about hazmat cargoes or routing in advance."

Davis gives these tips to uncover hazmat cargo that may threaten your community:

Find the main freight line(s). This is not hard because many main freight lines run right through towns and cities, or right next to them. The biggest are called Class 1 freight railroads.

Stake out the line(s) that may be of concern. Visit at different times of day. Use binoculars and a long-lens camera to learn the contents of cars by looking at the diamond-shaped placards. Bring your press card. Sometimes you can focus on rail yards or industrial facilities.

Identify potentially hazardous cargo by looking up the UN numbers on the cars (especially tank cars). These numbers identify hazardous cargo. You may have to do the lookup back at the office. Then you need to sift through and find the most worrisome, frequent or voluminous ones.

Figure out where trains are coming from — and going to — if you can. Are you near a source of oil or chemicals? A place that uses them?

Try to build a list of train accidents near your area. Here’s one starting point. The FRA Office of Safety Analysis data portal provides another.

Now learn all you can about the health consequences of a spill of cargoes of concern.

Go back to the maps and your knowledge of the community to figure out what vulnerable facilities or populations are near possible accident sites (i.e., near the tracks). Schools? Nursing homes? Apartment buildings? Population centers? Lakes, streams or wetlands?

Talk to the first responders who might be called to an incident. It could be the police department, the sheriff, the firefighters, the ambulance service — or even the emergency room of your local hospital.

Ask questions to help your community prepare. Does your local fire department have a hazmat unit? Ask about their plans for dealing with a big hazmat incident. Talk to your local (or tribal) emergency planning committee, an entity required under federal law to plan for such blow-ups. To find yours, you may have to go through your state emergency response commission. Contact information is listed by state. Some places have agencies called 'multi-hazard' agencies; that’s likely who you want."

Consider using these other reporting resources:
National Association of SARA Title III Program Officials: A professional organization of people from government agencies and private industry who deal with hazmat incidents for a living.
EPA regional offices: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office may have staff who can help with information about a hazmat event.
UN Number reference guides: Apps are available for Android or Apple. You can also find lookups on the web, for example here.
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration: Check out the phone app that carries its Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG2020).
CAMEO Chemicals software: A suite of tools meant for emergency responders. here.

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