WRAL Investigates

Hidden dangers on the rails: How Triangle first responders plan for a potential train derailment disaster

After a February 2023 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, WRAL Investigates raised questions about the preparation of law enforcement and first responders in central North Carolina.
Posted 2023-06-08T18:53:02+00:00 - Updated 2023-06-08T22:00:00+00:00

The February 2023 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, is raising concerns about railroad disasters in communities along tracks nationwide.

On June 15, the National Transportation Safety Board will hold investigative hearings about the Ohio derailment, which forced thousands of people to evacuate as toxic, cancer-causing chemicals were released.

Hazardous materials like that ride the rails through central North Carolina.

WRAL Investigates asked central North Carolina first responders what they know about that potentially dangerous cargo and how they would deal with a derailment.

“We just have to trust in the railway system that when they come through our community that they’re providing the highest safety precautions,” said Fuqua-Varina Town Commissioner William Harris.

In mid-May, Harris stood with members of Congress on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol to support a new Railway Safety Act.

The legislation would:

  • Expand the types of hazardous materials that prompt increased safety regulations.
  • Require railroads to notify states about the types of hazmat their trains are carrying and how often they come through.
  • Call for more productive gear for firefighters who respond to a derailment.

Harris hopes the legislation will lead to more transparency from the railroad companies to keep communities safe along the tracks.

“As small rural towns continue to grow, as we continue to develop, we need the cooperation of the railroad system,” Harris said. “We need that now.”

Last month, Harris said there have been 32 derailments in North Carolina since 2018. It includes a 32-year-old man getting struck and killed by an Amtrak passenger train in September 2020.

Fuquay-Varina town commissioner advocates for railway safety in Washington

Several agencies in central North Carolina have plans for what they would do if a serious derailment happened.

In early May, several area law enforcement agencies and first responders got together for a workshop on hazards preparedness. Representatives of the Garner Fire Department, Garner Police Department and Wake County EMS joined local town leaders and representatives from Amtrak and Norkfolk Southern. The group received training from Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX).

“If you haven’t thought about that ahead of time, it’s too late once it’s happening,” said TEEX instructor Kim Vickers.

Garner has a railway run through the heart of the town.

“If you get the community to get to work together on being prepared, knowing what’s entailed in that, knowing how they work together and how all the pieces fit, then you’re much better prepared when things do happen,” Vickers said.

Garner Fire Chief Matt Poole explained his department’s role if a derailment happened.

“Our training is to respond, to identify a product and then determine size and scale,” Poole said.

Poole said first responders have to contact the railroad's dispatcher or locate a manifest from the train operator to know what specific chemicals are carried on-board.

“There can be a wide variety of products on those trains at any point in time,” Poole said.

WRAL Investigates wanted to find out what types of hazardous materials the freight trains carry. They are tracked by a "commodity flow study” that the state recommends localities obtain those to identify the risks.

WRAL Investigates requested a copy of it from Wake County.

However, the county denied the request, saying it's considered "sensitive public security information."

A spokesperson said, "We are required to get their (the railroads) permission to release the documents to you."

WRAL Investigates also asked the railroad companies for the information.

Norfolk Southern said it only provides the information to first responders.

"They are not released to the general public as they are security-sensitive," a Norfolk Southern spokesperson said.

WRAL Investigates received a similar response from CSX, "For security reasons, CSX does not disclose how and where it transports these materials to the public."