Here’s something to ponder the next time a freight train carrying flammable liquids rumbles through your community:
Emergency responders on the Treasure Coast don’t know what chemicals are being transported on the Florida East Coast rail line.
“We don’t know what the (rail system) is transporting at any time. ... Until an incident occurs we don’t know (what chemical) we’re involved with. And the scenario can be very different when we have a single car or multiple cars.”
Those are the words of Martin County Fire Rescue Division Chief Daniel Wouters, who recently presented an analysis of the public’s vulnerability to a railcar chemical release during a meeting of the Martin County Commission.
Wouters illustrated several scenarios showing what might happen if a train accident occurred and chemicals such as liquefied anhydrous ammonia or liquefied chlorine gas were released into the air.
Potential consequences? Mass evacuations and health effects ranging from notable discomfort and respiratory problems to life-threatening illnesses and death.
The analysis was prompted by two concerns:
1) The rash of crude oil train wrecks and explosions the last two years. The worst incident occurred in July 2013, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a train loaded with North Dakota oil burst into flames, killing 47 people.
2) A projected increase in rail traffic on FEC’s 351-mile Miami-to-Jacksonville rail corridor. Wouters said the risk of chemical spills already exists because FEC runs 14 daily freight trains, transporting chemicals, on the rail line.
“The concern we have is the increase of the high-speed passenger trains along with the cargo, which travels at a lower speed,” he said, referring to All Aboard Florida. “That has the potential to increase our risk for these types of accidents.”
FEC plans to boost the number of cargo trains along the corridor to 20 by next year. These freight trains will share the tracks with All Aboard Florida’s 32 daily passenger trains starting in late 2017.
Let’s be clear: Chemical spills are rare. Still, emergency responders need to prepare for the possibility, and prior notification would be helpful.
“Knowing beforehand what chemicals are being transported informs us what kind of response may be necessary,” Wouters said.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a “final rule” designed to enhance the safety of tank cars. Trains transporting large volumes of flammable liquids will need to adhere to new rules, phased in over time, governing speed, braking systems, tanker design and route selection.
The final rule also includes a section on notification requirements, but it doesn’t go far enough. While the new rules will compel rail companies to tell local governments what trains are carrying, the threshold is too low.
For example, the notification requirement kicks in for trains with “a continuous block of 20 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid or 35 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid dispersed through a train.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, believes the notification requirement is inadequate.
“This is an important issue,” Posey said. “First responders should be notified of any dangerous chemicals trains are carrying. The U.S. Department of Transportation is the primary federal agency for train safety. The agency should make this a top priority.”
To its credit, FEC has pre-empted the need to improve the notification requirements — at least in our region.
Last month, FEC launched a new online portal that discloses the contents of every train car. The system allows the railway’s customers to log in to a secure site and track freight shipments across the rail network.
In the future, first responders will be allowed to track the progress of chemicals through our region in real time.
FEC is to be commended for including first responders in the online portal. The rail company needs to speed their access to the system.
This is an important public safety issue — one that will put emergency responders in Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie counties in a better position to react strategically to a chemical spill if and when one occurs.