Danger on the Rails: What hazards are rolling through South Mississippi?

Danger on the Rails: What hazards are rolling through South Mississippi?
Trains carry all sorts of products through South Mississippi. Some of the cargo is hazardous. (Photo source: WLOX News)
Trains carry all sorts of products through South Mississippi. Some of the cargo is hazardous. (Photo source: WLOX News)

SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - Every day, trains move through South Mississippi carrying all sorts of cargo. Just what is on the trains as they chug past our homes, businesses, schools and cars? Railroad companies are tightlipped about the train's manifest, but we were able to learn what methods are employed in the event of a train accident. And it's all to ensure your safety.

In 1996, a CSX tanker carrying a hazardous chemical leaked while on the tracks in Ocean Springs.

"There had been some discussion about train safety and the speediness of trains that were going through Ocean Springs. And low and behold, one night I get a phone call saying, 'You need to come down to Lovers Lane, there's been a train spill," Ocean Springs Alderman Matt McDonnell recalled.

The train leaked dicyclopentadiene, which is highly flammable and irritating to the eyes and respiratory system. That's why, as a precaution, city officials opted to evacuate residents near the railroad tracks.

"It's been about 20 years ago, but the train had stopped on at the tracks right there at the entrance on Lovers Lane and Cherokee Glenn subdivisions, and it stopped before it crossed the Biloxi-Bay Bridge," McDonnell said.

Charles Young remembers the leak well. He used to live just north of the tracks on Iola Drive.

"The police came and knocked on our door, and told us that I had to leave. I didn't talk to anybody. I just packed an overnight bag and went to my business and spent the night," said Young.

City officials said though the leak was minor, it created enough of a scare that they considered moving residents out of the area by boat since the only way in and out was blocked off.

"After a lot of study, the police department and the fire department and the mayor and board of aldermen really came to the determination that the best course of action for those residents was to shelter in place," said McDonnell.

In 2008, another train incident, this time in Stone County. Five chlorine tankers and two sodium hydroxide cars derailed. Luckily, none of the cars exploded or leaked, but people were still evacuated. Despite that, officials said train accidents are rare.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), over the last 10 years train accidents in Mississippi were down 76 percent. Also, in the last decade, the FRA confirms only five train accidents resulted in the release of hazardous materials. Still that's enough for emergency response officials to continue training for a train crisis. They know how one can turn deadly depending on several factors, including what it's carrying.

"I'm not trying to scare anybody, but you put a tank car of liquefied petroleum gas that has an expansion ratio of 275 to 1 in an area that has a lot of population, lot of houses, you have tons of ignition sources. You could have a lot of problems there," said Clarke County Emergency Management Director Eddie Ivy.

Jackson County's Director of Emergency Services Earl Etheridge has worked close to 30 derailments in his career. He says training is key.

"We do training with the railroads. We still train with the state fire academy and other organizations and it's mainly to teach how to deal with derailments. How to identify what's in the rail cars and how to respond to them safely," said Etheridge.

Gulfport's Fire Chief Michael Beyerstedt said his department trains twice a year to deal with hazardous materials.

"Once we're notified of a train derailment, the first thing you want to know is the location. And you have to get the manifest of from the train. What's it carry? What's in these cars? Then you have identify what cars derailed," said Etheridge.

Etheridge said waiting on the manifest takes several minutes. That time is often too precious to lose in an emergency.

"The potential is there for a major disaster with a train," he added.

This year the FRA issued a new rule to strengthen safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail. That includes speed restrictions for trains transporting large volumes of flammable liquids.

"Rail cars are built extremely well now, verses what they were in the 50s and 60s and 70s when I first started out my career," Etheridge said.

He said very few derailments he worked involved the release of chemicals, but there are still a number of old rail cars on the rail lines being used up North and in the Midwest.

First responders told me a number of factors can lead to derailments, including a track that's separated, a tie that breaks, or something on the tracks or at a crossing. Gulfport's fire chief said he has applied for a grant for a Commodity Flow Study to figure out what chemicals are being transported in trains and also 18 wheelers in Gulfport.

View the 10 year accident and incident overview:

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