Evacuations likely if an oil train derails

A train derailed in Ligonier in 2012, spilling 200,000+ pounds of molten sulfur. More than 100 people were forced to evacuate their homes.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Northeast Indiana is a major corridor for railroads. It’s no stranger to hazardous shipments and derailments.  One particular product is traveling through at increasingly high rates: crude oil.

Explosive and even deadly derailments have recently brought oil train concerns into the national spotlight. It’s a scenario first responders are preparing for now, more than ever.

If an oil train catches fire, the emergency response plan includes evacuating homes and letting the trains burn out, instead of fighting the blaze.

More crude oil produced in North Dakota is being shipped through northeast Indiana and across the U.S. Since the beginning of 2013, there have been at least 10 major oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada.  One incident in Quebec killed 47 people.

The trend has caught the attention of federal safety regulators, who have proposed a handful of new regulations to make oil trains safer.

A Norfolk Southern train derailed east of New Haven on September 15.
A Norfolk Southern train derailed east of New Haven on September 15.

15 Finds Out: First responders left in the dark regarding oil train stats

Northeast Indiana isn’t exempt from train derailments. In September, a Norfolk Southern train derailed just east of New Haven. Fortunately, most of the tank cars were empty. Officials said no chemicals or hazardous materials spilled.

Serious hazmat incidents

Other areas across the state haven’t been as fortunate.  15 Finds Out looked up records with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). They state there have been six “serious” hazmat incidents on Indiana railroads since January 1, 2010. Fortunately, none involved crude oil.

One of the worst accidents happened in Ligonier in March of 2012.  More than 200,000 pounds of molten sulfur spilled when a Norfolk Southern train derailed.  Some of it caught fire and more than 100 people from 56 homes had to be evacuated because of the toxic plume of smoke.

Other areas impacted include:

  • Portage – 6/6/10: A CSX train derailed and spilled 22,000 pounds of Polymeric Beads in super sacks
  • Oakland City – 6/1/12: A mixed freight train derailed and spilled 16,424 gallons of ethanol. It caused $876,000 in damage
  • Avon – 10/5/13: A CSX train leaked 0.1 gallons of hydrochloric acid
  • Westville – 1/6/12: Three trains collided, caught fire, and spilled almost two gallons of flammable alcohols. 54 people were evacuated.
  • Hammond – 12/28/11: An Indiana Harbor Belt train derailed and spilled 150 gallons of diesel fuel
More than 200,000 pounds of molten sulfur spilled when a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ligonier in 2012.
More than 200,000 pounds of molten sulfur spilled when a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ligonier in 2012.

But what if the incidents had involved crude oil?  Michael “Mick” Newton, Noble County Emergency Management Director, handled the Ligonier incident.  He said the local response would be similar no matter what hazardous material derails.

Emergency crews plan to call railroad leaders, who will respond to clean up the derailment. They will also immediately get people out of the “danger area,” which could include anyone living near the toxic plume of smoke.

Newton exclusively showed 15 Finds Out an app EMA directors would use in the case of a derailment and toxic fire.

“This program gives us an idea how far, worst case scenario, to evacuate,” Newton explained. One oil train simulation had evacuations up to five miles away from the potential derailment.

Auburn Fire Chief Mike VanZile said his team has recently trained more on crude oil derailments than ever before. He said if an oil train derailed and caught fire, his crews will have to let it burn.

“Defensively, to let something burn is usually the safest for the environment. If we start adding a bunch of foam, a bunch of water to a product and it goes into city sewers, lakes, streams, rivers, waterways, the environmental impact could last for years,” VanZile explained. “If it’s one car involved, we would have the resources to help start putting that fire out. If it’s multiple cars, we don’t have close to the resources to do that.”

With a greater number of oil trains traveling through places like Fort Wayne, Auburn, and Garrett, federal officials say the risk for these extreme responses is growing.

Newton made it clear that he’s not overly concerned by the rising number of oil trains traveling through his county. But when asked for the worst case scenario, he said, “If it were to happen here in the town of Albion or in a community, that would be my worst nightmare because the area we would have to evacuate.”

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