The price tag to clean up Norfolk Southern's derailment in East Palestine, Ohio is still being tallied. Estimates top $387 million dollars. That disaster has put the spotlight on rail safety.
Fortunately, Alabama rarely sees something like it experienced in 2013 in Pickens County. An explosion with ninety tankers off the track with crude oil burning.
More recently there have been smaller derailments in Sylacauga, Jasper, Helena, and Anniston in 2022 and 2023.
Rail transport remains the safest way to transport any material. That includes most hazardous materials like fertilizer, ethanol, crude oil and chlorine.
We asked Jefferson County EMA Director Jim Coker if local agencies were alerted to hazardous materials on local railways. "We know generally what comes through with a commodity flow chart which the railroads are willing and able to provide to us," explained Coker.
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Local governments can request a cargo manifest on an annual basis. Nationwide, 2.3 million carloads of chemicals moved in 2022 with more than 99.9% of hazardous materials reaching their destination safely according to the industry.
"Here in Jefferson County we are a response heavy county with so many assets that we could call on if we had issues," remarked Coker.
He says their last derailment was a small spill in 2015. County EMA crews head to training exercises next month with the rail line. Coker explains railroads keep their own response teams close by as well.
In Alabama with three thousand miles of track in Alabama, derailments are trending down:
46 in 2021
24 in 2022
3 so far in 2023
One or fewer each year has involved hazardous chemicals according to federal records. Nationwide there were about 1,000 derailments in 2022.
Jena Santoro with Everstream Analytics, a company that specializes in supply chain monitoring, says derailments are rarely considered a major disaster. "Most derailments are still happening in the railyard and are very minor," said Santoro.
"We have great rail regulations in the U.S.; they are quite strict despite an uptick in derailments," explained Santoro.
Experts say most incidents are preventable, caused by human error or track defects.
Congress is looking at new safety requirements. That includes notifying states when hazardous materials are being transported, a mandate for two person train crews, and standards for defect detectors.
Norfolk Southern says it invests a billion dollars on infrastructure each year with a lot of maintenance every year in Alabama.
But Santoro says the system remains stressed with a combination of labor shortage for rail inspectors and high demand to move products. Trains are getting longer, heavier, and faster, driven by pressure from consumers.
Part of the solution she advises more training for inspectors and first responders.
The Federal Railroad Administration, FRA, is the government watchdog organization responsible for regulating and overseeing freight and passenger safety across the country.
The railroads do day to day inspections while the FRA audits safety performance and activities.
FRA'S RESPONSE TO ABC 33/40 NEWS QUESTIONS REGARDING COMMUNITY NOTIFICATION:
'Regarding your question on community notification, local government officials may request from rail carriers a list of all hazardous materials transported by rail through their communities on an annualized basis for the express purpose of assisting emergency responders in planning and preparing for emergency situations that could arise. This information is shared on a need-to-know basis according to the Department of Homeland Security’s guidance and industry standards on hazmat transport (Association of American Railroads Circular OT-55). Additionally, railroads make real-time emergency information available to verified emergency response agencies through the Industry’s AskRail app, currently deployed on all Class I railroads.
Organizations with whom railroads may share information on hazmat shipments and commodity flows include first-response organizations and emergency planning organizations, such as police and fire departments, as well as Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) and Tribal Emergency Planning Committees (TEPCs).
While, in general, railroads are not required to notify or directly send information to State or local officials on when and what may be traversing through their jurisdictions via train, as mentioned, the information is available to them through multiple avenues. Despite this, on Tuesday, February 21, Secretary Buttigieg called on U.S. railroads to provide proactive advance notification to state emergency response teams when they are transporting hazardous gas tank cars through their states instead of expecting first responders to look up this information after an incident occurs.'