Athol Fire Chief addresses risk of train crash

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 02-24-2023 4:41 PM

ATHOL – On Feb. 3, 38 cars of a train 150 cars long derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The resulting fire damaged another 12 cars in the train, operated by Norfolk Southern. Cars were carrying chemicals and combustible materials, including vinyl chloride, which is a toxic flammable gas. The derailment remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The accident led to the evacuation of residents of the surrounding area for several days. Returning residents have been reluctant to consume local drinking water, despite assurances from state officials that it’s safe, and some continue to complain of breathing problems, skin irritations, and other health issues.

While trains of varying lengths move through downtown on a regular basis, Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera tells the Athol Daily News that a similar accident in the town is unlikely.

“What happened out there is a little bit different that what would happen around here,” he said. “I will tell you that the firefighters here have been trained as operational level first responders, which means they can identify and know what they need for equipment as far as hazardous materials. Actually, we’re going through the re-certification process right now.”

The trains that move through Athol are operated by PanAm, which was recently purchased by rail giant CSX.

“The train industry is regulated very, very deeply and the chances of things happening are like – how often do you see train derailments when there’s trains running up and down the railways across the country daily?” said Guarnera. “They are regulated very well.

“When it comes to hazardous materials, the way the train is set up, they don’t put hazardous materials next to hazardous materials, especially ones that will interact with each other. It just so happens that out there, where we just had that tragedy, the use of that particular railway is a lot different that what they use this railway for as far as commodities.”

Guarnera also said railroad companies are not required to give communities advance notice regarding what materials are moving through by rail.

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“Wherever the tracks are, the tracks are owned by those railways. They are their tracks; they can run up and down with anything they want, whether the public wants them to or not,” said the chief. “What I will tell you, PanAm is now owned by CSX and they have a strategy for how they move things. It’s called common carrier requirements, which means anything somebody wants to have on the railway – and they paid for it – the railway can’t say ‘no.’ That’s national.

“As far as our railway that goes through Athol, the most that moves through here is LNG, liquefied natural gas, which is gas for heating. Crude oil and things like that branch off and don’t go through Athol. LNG is flammable, it’s a compressed gas, but it’s very, very highly regulated and even then not much of it moves by railway.”

In the end, said Guarnera, “What I’m telling you is that the commodities that are on those railways, they don’t have to tell us what it is. At the end of the year they’ll tell the local LEPC (Local Emergency Planning Committee), they will know what went through the prior year. So they don’t have to tell you, ‘Here’s what’s going through.’ But mainly through here it’s LNG and a lot of cargo.”

The Athol Daily News contacted CSX to inquire about the company’s policy regarding the information it provides to communities about the kinds of materials their trains are carrying. The company provided the following statement:

“Safety in our communities is the highest priority for CSX in delivering essential commerce for all aspects of our economy and the goods used by American families every day. The transportation of all our freight, including hazardous materials, is done in accordance with strict federal regulations and it is important that we are able to operate safely to carry out our common carrier obligations.

“For security reasons, CSX does not disclose how and where it transports these materials to the public. CSX complies with Federal law concerning rail security and emergency preparedness, working with Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC), county and state Emergency Management agencies to ensure they have a comprehensive list of hazardous commodities transported in their communities so that first responders are prepared in the extremely rare case that a hazmat incident should occur. We work closely with first responders across our network and regulatory agencies to ensure proper planning and safety protocols are followed to protect our communities, employees, and customers.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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