Hauling hazardous freight

Tankers carrying methyl bromide come through Gilroy on a regular

Gilroy
– Nearly all 14 freight trains that pass through Gilroy on a
typical day carry potentially deadly contents, but South County
safety officials say they’re prepared to respond to the worst
hazardous materials accidents.
Gilroy – Nearly all 14 freight trains that pass through Gilroy on a typical day carry potentially deadly contents, but South County safety officials say they’re prepared to respond to the worst hazardous materials accidents.

“There’s no track record of any issue around here,” Gilroy Fire Chief Dale Foster said this week, “I think Gilroy is equal to or better than any department its size in the state.”

About 5 percent of the freight cargo hauled through town is considered hazardous, meaning a substance is flammable, toxic or corrosive. The most dangerous are chemicals such as chlorine and ammonia-based fertilizers, and petrochemical products used in plastics. But the definition of hazardous materials is broad and includes whiskey, paint and even some food additives.

Last year, the railroad industry moved 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials around the country. Tom White, of the Association of American Railroads, said trains are the least risky way to transport that material.

“Rail is a very safe way of shipping things,” White, said.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were only eight deaths related to hazardous materials on the rails between 1995 and 2004, compared to 105 on the nation’s highways. In seven of those years, there were no deaths.

But the accidents are no less deadly for being infrequent. Last year, a derailment in Texas caused three deaths, two from chlorine inhalation. In January, nine people died from chlorine inhalation and more than 200 were made sick, after a two trains collided in Graniteville, S.C.

Overall, there were 779 incidents involving hazardous rail cars in 2004. Forty-seven of those cars leaked their contents, leading to precautionary evacuations of nearly 6,000 people.

Local public safety officials said this week that there hasn’t been a hazardous railway incident here in recent memory, but if it were to happen, Gilroy is prepared.

Foster was previously the assistant chief for the San Jose Fire Department and has more than 20 years of experience with hazardous materials. He said that very few agencies are prepared to handle an event like the one in South Carolina on their own.

“That would be unreasonable,” Foster said. “It’s safe to say that a significant event is too much for Gilroy. A multiple tank car event would require mutual aid.”

Mutual aid is a multi-jurisdiction response team that mobilizes to handle emergencies. In the event of an accident, the local fire department is responsible for identifying the danger and securing the area, but immediate assistance would come from the county sheriff, and a hazardous materials team would be dispatched from either the County Fire District in Los Gatos or the San Jose department.

The most important function of the first agency on scene is to deny access to areas that may be contaminated. Rail cars carry placards identifying contents and fire departments have instructions on how to handle different materials. So as to not get to close to a potentially fatal gas leak, safety workers often use binoculars to read the placards.

Lt. Dale Unger, who is in charge of the southern division of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, said his agency is still working on an in-depth protocol for responding to train wrecks, but has benefited from recent training exercises with the Department of Homeland Security.

“It was pretty intense, really good,” Unger said. “In a situation like this you can’t go it alone.”

Federal safety officials have taken a greater interest in safety due to fears that the nation’s rail system is vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Homeland Security has suggested rerouting hazardous materials away from urban centers and removing identification placards from rail cars, but that proposal has met opposition from the industry and firefighters.

“From a security standpoint that’s not needed,” Foster said. “First responders should understand the placarding system and it should be maintained.”

Battalion Chief Wiley Evans of the South County Fire District said that the North County agencies respond quickly, but South County would be better served by a more local hazardous materials team.

“Everybody wants to have instantaneous response,” he said, “but there is no money for training or to set up a haz mat team in South County. We can’t go in and try to rescue people and be contaminated ourselves and be victims and not part of the rescue.”

Wiley also said that the hazardous materials transported up and down U.S. Highway 101 are of greater concern than substances moved by rail.

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