Despite the images of flames and public evacuations after train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, late Friday, railway incidents requiring nearby residents to flee possible explosions or potentially toxic fumes are rare, a USA TODAY analysis of federal government data found.
Technological improvements to the railcars crisscrossing the nation’s tracks to ensure better crashworthiness and temperature regulation, retiring old cars, and a decline in crude oil transport since their peak in 2015 have made railcars less likely to leak or spill hazardous materials, experts told USA TODAY.
Yet when wrecks do occur, they may serve as difficult reality checks for the many Americans who live near railroad tracks moving massive amounts of freight, including potentially toxic chemicals, each year. In East Palestine, residents were only allowed to return home after days of evacuation, sometimes under threat of arrest, due to safety concerns around toxic chemical release.
USA TODAY found that although catastrophic events involving trains and chemicals may be uncommon, hazmat cargo violations caught during inspections of rail shippers and operators appear to be climbing. Over the last five years, federal inspectors have flagged 36% more hazmat violations compared with the five years prior – and fines for those are up 16%.
One reason for the increase, however, may simply be improved accountability by agency inspectors. A 2016 audit by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s Office found that inspectors were issuing lax penalties for violators of hazmat cargo regulations and failing to refer bad actors for possible criminal prosecution despite agency requirements.
In Ohio, 20 railcars out of the 100-car train operated by Norfolk Southern Railway were carrying cargo labeled as hazardous materials when it derailed near the Pennsylvania state line and burst into flames. As many as 2,000 people – a significant swath of the 5,000-person rural town along the northeastern Ohio and Pennsylvania border – evacuated from their homes for days after worries that unstable vinyl chloride in five derailed cars could explode, disbursing toxic fumes and shrapnel as far as a mile away.
Environmental officials deployed air and water quality monitors to ensure those chemicals – associated with an increased risk of cancer – weren’t being released into the community’s air.
Preliminary indications are that a mechanical problem with a rail car axle may have caused the crash, but the investigation is ongoing, National Transportation Safety Board officials said.
What is vinyl chloride? Toxic gases connected to Ohio train derailment cause concern
East Palestine residents and a business owner filed a federal class-action lawsuit Tuesday, alleging the derailment was caused by the railway company’s negligence in operating the train, defects in their track system or in one or more of their cars – resulting in the exposure of hundreds of people to “toxic chemicals, fumes, and carcinogens” and evacuation orders, court records show.
Norfolk Southern declined to comment on pending litigation.
Not only was Friday’s incident relatively rare, so too are deaths from incidents involving hazmat cargo rail cars. The last reported death from a hazardous material on a train was in 2011. A railcar loader in Kentucky was “splashed with 95% sulfuric acid while finishing the final stages of the pressure check before releasing the tank car into transport,” according to an incident report filed with the Transportation Department.
But the consequences may still be widespread due to the sheer amount of cargo involved. Hazardous materials have leaked into waterways or caused other kinds of environmental damage. Clean-up often requires specialized training and can be costly.
Authorities said environmental agencies monitoring air and water quality in East Palestine have not detected anything concerning. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice sounded an alarm about water safety in the Ohio River, though the water ultimately tested safe.
Why ensuring hazmat train safety can be especially difficult
The United States has about 140,000 miles of railroad for freight cars, which are owned and maintained by private organizations. Each year, nearly a billion tons of hazardous materials are shipped by rail, according to the American Chemistry Council.
Hazardous materials, or “hazmat,” are defined by the federal government as “substances or chemicals that pose a health hazard, a physical hazard, or harm to the environment,” such as unrefined oil, liquid natural gas and industrial manufacturing chemicals.
These hazmat railcars are are required to meet additional safety regulations to ensure they can carry chemicals across the country without incident.
The rules for transporting materials depend on each substance and how dangerous it is. The Federal Railroad Administration describes railroads as “the safest method” for moving large amounts of chemicals long distances, yet most hazardous materials are transported by trucks on U.S. highways.
The Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group, noted in an emailed statement to USA TODAY that 99.9% of all hazmat shipments reach their destination without incident and that the hazmat accident rate has declined 55% since 2012.
How frequently do trains leak or spill hazardous materials? Not very.
In the last decade, hazardous materials have spilled or leaked from trains more than 5,000 times in the United States, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal incident reports. However, other forms of transit notched far more spills. For every rail leak reported last year, there were two involving planes and 67 on highways. The federal reports show the number of incidents involving trains has been declining.
Still, in 2022 alone, rail operators reported 337 hazardous material leaks or spills, only 32 of which were classified as “serious.” Only six were reported to have caused an injury.
Crashes are less common than leaks but can have more serious consequences. Railroad derailments counted for 1 in 10 hazmat wrecks in the last decade – and 1 in 4 of those incidents last year, USA TODAY found.
In the Ohio derailment, the cars carrying the chemical were pressurized and had thermal protection, according to an email from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Such additions are safety measures that provide hazmat cargo with extra protection from flames in case of an accident.
Trains derail rarely, but can be very costly and dangerous
The most common reasons trains spill hazmat cargo are equipment failure, like broken valves, or human error such as improperly preparing cargo. Hazardous materials were released in 172 train derailments over the last decade, or roughly 17 each year. But when derailments involve hazardous cargo, the sheer size and amount of materials being transported can make wrecks dangerous and costly.
Last year’s 18 derailments involving hazmat cargo resulted in more than 20 times as much financial damage, or $41.6 million, compared with the $2.1 million total cost in damage caused by roughly 300 leaks of hazardous materials from other causes such as loose valves, USA TODAY found. The cost includes the value of cargo lost, damages to the train, tracks and nearby property, and the cost of emergency and clean-up response.
Despite the plumes of black smoke overhead East Palestine, nearby residents and businesses are typically unaffected by hazmat incidents even when there is a serious wreck. Over the last decade, homes or businesses near a hazmat derailment were evacuated at least 24 times, or only once every seven wrecks, USA TODAY found.
Have trains carrying hazmat leaked or spilled near you?
USA TODAY used federal data from incident reports since 2013 to build this searchable table readers can use to look up how often trains near them have leaked or spilled hazmat cargo.
Agency inspectors dinged for past hazmat cargo accountability
A 2016 audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General found that the agency’s inspectors lightly fined shippers and operators for violating hazmat cargo safety regulations and failed to refer cases for criminal prosecution despite agency requirements.
But an administration spokesman, Warren Flatau, told USA TODAY that the report’s recommendations were “satisfactorily closed” by the agency and it had since taken steps to remedy all the issues identified. In an emailed statement, the Inspector General’s Office confirmed that the Federal Railroad Administration took “sufficient action to address each of the recommendations we made in our report and we therefore consider those recommendations closed.”
USA TODAY’s analysis of available public data bears this out to some degree. It found that agency inspectors flagged more violations and on average fined higher amounts annually in the years after the audit.
USA TODAY found that federal regulators collected an average of $16.5 million in civil penalties annually from railroad shippers and operators, including about $4.5 million for violating hazmat rules, since 2017. In the five years prior, they collected an average of $12.1 million in penalties annually, including $3.9 million for hazmat violations.
The Inspector General’s Office noted that the closed actions included a recommendation that the agency amend its policy and procedures to require all staff to report any “suspected criminal violations and instances of fraud, waste, and abuse” to it directly.
An Inspector General’s Office representative declined to provide details on the number of criminal referrals forwarded to it, urging USA TODAY to ask the Federal Railroad Administration for such details. Flatau said the agency doesn’t track such referrals because of the change in policy having all staff reach out directly to the Inspector General’s Office directly. But he said the agency does not have the ability to arrest or prosecute anyone.
Devorah Ancel, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program, noted that the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration adopted new safety rules for hazmat transport by rail several years ago.
The revised regulations included measures like improved railcar design, which were “far better from the arcane regulations that had been on the books for decades that did not contemplate movement of highly flammable and explosive materials that are in transit on our rail lines today,” Ancel said in an email.
She added: “Those regulations, however, left some improvements on the table. For example, the agency, in its final rule, chose not to adopt the most stringent of the brake design mechanisms that were proposed at that time.”
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