Agencies trained for rail disaster response
HUNTINGTON -- A major train derailment involving hazardous materials hasn't occurred in the immediate Huntington area since 1998.
Still, emergency officials say they know massive amounts of dangerous material travel through the Tri-State by rail every day.
A CSX train that derailed Wednesday afternoon in Lynchburg, Va., causing an explosion after two cars carrying 55,000 gallons of oil dropped into the James River, was in Huntington at about 6:30 a.m. the previous day, sources said.
CSX officials couldn't confirm the train's whereabouts before the accident. Still, there's potential on any given day for a similar situation to occur in the Tri-State.
"I have dealt with CSX derailments before," said Gordon Merry, executive director of Cabell County EMS. "Quite honestly, when everything is contained, they do a good job of coming in and mitigating things as best they can."
Merry said when an accident involving hazardous materials occurs in the greater Huntington area, it's the responsibility of whichever fire department has jurisdiction to take the lead on response.
Law enforcement then works to contain the scene and serve as crowd control, while EMS crews respond to any injuries and help to contain the scene.
"Cabell County is fortunate to have a very (well-coordinated) emergency response," Merry said. "There's good communication between police, fire, EMS and private industry. We practice, we drill all the time."
Emergency responders of all stripes meet once a month under the umbrella of the Cabell Wayne Homeland Security Committee.
It was in that committee that the idea of the Heads Up Huntington app for smartphones and tablets came about. The app alerts users to situations ranging from traffic accidents to police emergencies in the interest of protecting the public.
"With something like Heads Up Huntington, you see the result of taking a proactive approach to things," Merry said.
Bruce Ramsey, a hazardous materials expert with the Federal Railroad Administration, said there are some rule changes being considered to try and make the transportation of oil safer.
"They are looking at reducing speed, reducing the number of cars in a train, looking at the amount of time trains are unattended, all kinds of things," he said.
Susan Small, communications director for the West Virginia Public Service Commission, said the FRA has made her agency aware it is considering lowering the maximum speed of trains carrying crude oil to 40 miles per hour, and changing crude's hazardous material classification.
"These are all things they are considering, they haven't really implemented anything yet," she said.
No one was injured in the Lynchburg accident, though emergency responders are still trying to assess how much oil burned up in the derailment and how much has contaminated the James River.
In 1998, a CSX train derailed just outside of Huntington, spilling 30,000 gallons of formaldehyde and forcing the evacuation of roughly 500 people, while shutting down W.Va. 2 for an extended amount of time. Some families weren't able to return to their homes for more than a year.
In 1997, a freight train collided with a coal train, spilling acid and forcing the evacuation of about 200 people in Putnam County. An engineer was killed in the accident.
The Huntington area still sees its share of incidents where trains strike pedestrians that have wandered onto the tracks or vehicles trying to beat a crossing signal, but a mass public safety threat from an accident on the railways hasn't occurred in about 15 years.
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