Danger on the Rails

Dave Sterbenz sees the images on TV like everyone else.

“What goes through my mind is if we had to do 1/2 mile in a complete circle evacuation in downtown Topeka and what that would entail,” Sterbenz said.

The latest train derailment happened last month in Lynchburg, Virginia. More than a dozen tank cars carrying crude oil caught fire causing hundreds of people to be evacuated.

According to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the amount of crude oil transported by rail across North America has increased 400% since 2005.

Those tank cars roll through Kansas every day.

People in Lynchburg were evacuated in a half mile radius of the derailment, so what would that look like if the same thing happened at 4th and Adams in downtown Topeka? The evacuation zone would include the Fire Department, the Law Enforcement Center, City Hall and the Shawnee County Courthouse, even up to the Statehouse.

“It’s one of those things you always have to be thinking of and from the emergency management standpoint. How are we going to deal with all of the trickle down for all of the evacuations? How do we deal with all of those people?” Sterbenz said.

Sterbenz says first responders simulate these types of derailments on a routine basis.

“For years and years the first responders have done the hazmat training the railroads have been great to work with and scenarios where we go in and practice the hazmats and practice the fires, we’ve got a lot of equipment and we’ve got a lot of training but obviously we haven’t had to use it,” Sterbenz said.

Union Pacific Spokesman Mark Davis says their company has trained more than 45,000 public responders and private contractors since 2003.

“Our training typically involves where to get resources in other words  information on products very important for them, what the valves on a tank car look like, what to do what not to do with those valves, and just the general resource of having contacts,” said Davis.

The federal government recently issued an emergency order that railroads must warn states before transporting large amounts of crude oil through their area.

BNSF issued the following response to the order;

“The safety of the communities where we operate is our highest concern. BNSF, as a matter of practice, makes commodity information available upon request to state agencies and emergency response organizations concerning hazardous materials transported on its routes,”

Additionally, BNSF believes that using the proper equipment for the transportation of rail freight contributes to mitigation of product releases. BNSF believes that promulgation of a federal tank car standard will provide much needed certainty for shippers and improved safety and response time for all first responders.” -Mike Trevino, BNSF

As for Union Pacific – Davis says its operating team is still reviewing the order.

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