Derailed train in Arlington was hauling hazardous cargo

ARLINGTON -- The train that derailed in the heart of downtown Arlington last month was hauling 12 rail cars filled with hazardous material, including potentially lethal chlorine.

Around lunchtime Feb. 17, five tankers of corn syrup and two empty boxcars on the 125-car Union Pacific train derailed near City Hall and several of downtown's newest restaurants. Less than half a gallon of corn syrup was spilled on the track from one of the toppled tankers, but the situation could have been more dangerous, fire officials and hazardous materials safety experts said.

Two tankers filled with flammable crude oil were hooked up 20 cars in front of the derailment. Hazardous cargo behind the derailed cars included eight tankers of sodium hydroxide, a corrosive chemical used in manufacturing, according to Union Pacific and an incident report obtained by the Star-Telegram. One car was carrying liquid chlorine, which can vaporize into a poisonous gas, and another was hauling sulfuric acid.

"A lot of people don't realize the lines coming through Arlington are a major east-west line," Assistant Fire Chief Jim Self said. "I'm not going to say every train has hazardous materials on it, but my guess would be most trains do."

No one was injured in the accident, which Union Pacific is still investigating. With the busy freight and passenger rail line dividing the city, the Fire Department has developed emergency plans and invested in specialized equipment and training since 1988 in case of derailments and other situations involving hazardous materials.

But some safety experts say allowing dangerous cargo such as chlorine to pass through urban population centers creates unnecessary risks.

"Emergency planning will never be adequate for a serious release," said Fred Millar, a national expert on hazardous materials safety and accident prevention. "The point is prevention. It is ludicrous to be allowing these cargos through major cities."

According to the Chlorine Institute, a single chlorine tanker could release a toxic cloud that could spread as far as 15 miles. That size cloud could kill or injure 100,000 people in less than half an hour, according to the Naval Research Laboratory. Millar said first responders could not do much in the event of a major chlorine release except evacuate people in the path of the gas as quickly as possible.

"If you have a decent-size puncture of a chlorine tank car, 98 percent of the chlorine all gets out in the first two minutes," said Millar, who described the greenish-yellow gas as a "cold, dense killing cloud" that would hug the ground. "There is nothing you can do but run."

Emergency operations

One of the Fire Department's first priorities Feb. 17 was to determine whether the derailed train cars were leaking and whether their cargo could endanger homes and businesses. The city activated its Emergency Operations Center, and firefighters evacuated the buildings closest to the derailment while a hazmat team determined what the train was hauling and tested the air for dangerous fumes. None of the hazardous materials tankers were damaged, Self said. "Chlorine is one of those cargoes we don't want to have a catastrophic release in any environment, urban or rural."

Though rare, train accidents with lethal spills have occurred in the United States.

In 2004, three people were killed by chlorine vapors and 30 others were treated for respiratory distress or other injuries after a train collision in Macdona, near San Antonio. Environmental cleanup for that crash cost about $150,000, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

In 2005, nine people were killed and at least 554 were taken to local hospitals complaining of respiratory difficulties after a train accident at Graniteville, S.C. Because of the chlorine release, about 5,400 people within a mile of the crash were evacuated for days, the safety board said.

"Periodically we have terrible releases. Graniteville was a wake-up call," said Millar, who said the Arlington derailment should be a wake-up call, too. "Just because Dallas-Fort Worth runs along a major rail line doesn't mean all the damn hazardous cargo from New Jersey to California has to go through. There are lots of less dangerous routes to use than that."

National numbers

About 2.2 billion tons of hazardous materials are shipped in the United States annually via highways, railroads, air, water and pipelines, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics/Census Bureau's 2007 Commodity Flow Survey. Only 4 percent of the 19,265 incidents reported by carriers that year occurred on rails, whereas 88 percent occurred on highways.

"Railroads are required by the federal government to ship hazardous materials. It is the safest way to transport these materials," said Raquel Espinoza-Williams, Union Pacific's corporate relations and media director. She added that 99.97 percent of 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials reach their destination without incident. "That is 16 times safer than truck transportation. These are not items you want traveling next to you on the freeway."

Information about rail shipments of toxic inhalants through Tarrant County -- such as the precise number of cars and which tracks they use -- is confidential under federal law. In 2010, a Fort Worth emergency response official who had been briefed on the matter told the Star-Telegram that about 1,300 chlorine-filled cars a year go through Union Pacific's Davidson Yard in west Fort Worth.

While tanker cars have been built to better resist punctures and leaks, Self said hazmat team members have tools and training to close damaged valves to reduce the release or spill of hazardous materials. The small amount of corn syrup spilled Feb. 17 "goes to show you how substantial the tanks are built," he said. "It takes a lot to rupture one."

Espinoza-Williams said the Federal Railroad Commission is working with engineers, researchers and hazardous materials manufacturers to develop better-built tanker cars.

"Tank cars are made of steel and have several layers designed to keep the material inside the car. These are well-designed," she said.

Rail companies do not own the train cars and do not determine the cargo or its destination, Espinoza-Williams said.

"If it was up to us, we wouldn't carry some of the materials," she said. "Our role is to move the materials in the safest possible manner. We do that by providing specialty training for our employees, maintaining the tracks and providing training for first responders."

Union Pacific regularly provides free training to Tarrant County first responders, which includes hands-on lessons about the layout of tanker cars and closing valves, she said.

Arlington's team

Arlington's hazmat team can use detection equipment and plume modeling capabilities to determine how large an area downwind to evacuate, if necessary. The team, which started with five members, has more than 24 state-certified technicians who train at schools nationwide.

After 9-11, Arlington also began requiring new firefighters to attend hazardous materials school, Self said.

"We're probably one of the most capable and sophisticated in the region and the state," Self said. "I'm pretty confident of our capabilities."

In a major disaster, Fort Worth and Arlington have agreements to assist each other. The cities have technology that lets them quickly identify buildings, such as schools, day cares and assisted living centers, that would need to be evacuated because of fumes or fire potential.

In case of a liquid spill, the cities have maps of storm drain inlets and outlets that can be used to help prevent hazardous material runoff from entering the water supply, said Keith Wells, Fort Worth's senior emergency management officer.

Though rail lines have worked to route hazardous materials away from urban centers, it's not always possible, Self said. Rail companies do a good job minimizing the time such shipments spend in urban areas, he said.

"They are very, very diligent about tracking those. If something happens to that train, they know immediately to report it to the appropriate fire department," Wells said.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578