News 18 Investigates: What’s riding the rails?

TIPPECANOE COUNTY, Ind (WLFI)- One year ago in July a train derailment involving hazardous materials in a Quebec town killed dozens and burned down several buildings. Five months later a train wreck in North Dakota spilled 400,000 gallons of crude oil. Several thousand more gallons spilled after a derailment in Pennsylvania this year.

All the wrecks involved hazardous materials, and with 170 miles of rail in Tippecanoe County, News 18 wanted to know what’s traveling on our railroads.

“When a train comes through Tippecanoe County we don’t specifically know exactly what’s on that rail car, Tippecanoe County EMA Hazmat Technician Tyler Hershman said.

“Every now and then we’ll hear there is going to be some kind of high level [radioactive material] or something,” LFD Assistant Chief of Special Operations Michael Blann said. “Typically it goes through, nobody even knows.”

On a typical day, hundreds of rail cars come through Tippecanoe County without incident.

“If I quickly think back through the years I’ve been to several derailments, and I can’t recall any of them involving hazardous materials that were leaking,” TEMA Director Smokey Anderson said.

Anderson said most of the materials that move on the county’s railroads are agriculture materials, like grain. A 2012 report by CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads said about 53,000 rail cars that came through Tippecanoe County in 2011 carried a hazardous material.

“A majority of the hazardous materials that travel on the rail, almost 75 percent, are flammable liquids,” Anderson said. “That would include your gasoline, diesel fuels, alcohols.”

“With the ethanol plants there are a lot of ethanol, denatured alcohol that goes through here, fuels, a lot of combustibles,” Blann said.

The answer to what may be on the rail cars can be right in front of you.

“If you stop at a railroad crossing and look for the diamond shape placards you have to know a little bit to know what it is,” Anderson said.

Every rail car carrying a hazardous material needs to be marked with the placard Anderson referred to. The placard will have a single number indicating the class of hazardous material, and a four digit code which identifies the specific material. Flammable liquids coming through the county are marked with a number three.

“Pretty soon you’ll see a lot of [flammable liquid] goes through Tippecanoe County,” Anderson said.

In the event a derailment causes a chemical spill the county has three hazmat teams.

“That’s kind of rare for a city of our size to have three teams, three well-organized teams,” Blann said.

“It’s likely if we ever get a train derailment we’ll need help from a lot of different sources,” Hershman said.

Purdue Fire, Lafayette Fire and TEMA all have teams. Every other month the Local Emergency Planning Committee, made up of county and emergency officials, meets to discuss emergency preparedness.

Hershman said he has never responded to a derailment in his two years on the team, but whether it’s a chemical spill involving a train, or a hazmat situation involving a semi-truck, many of the same protocols are taken.

“We always go through very similar motions,” Hershman said. “We always want to establish a decontamination team, then we want to establish an entry team to actually go in and fix the problem.”

Even though emergency officials do not know what travels on every single rail car, each train carries shipping papers which has a list of all the materials inside the cars.

In a case of a derailment those papers are crucial.

If you would like to get familiar with the different placards displayed on rail cars click here.

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