HARVARD – A tornado touches down.
Sirens are blaring, debris is flying, and residents are scrambling to get to a safe location.
In the midst of this freak January storm, a moving Union Pacific freight train is struck and several cars derail.
One of those cars is carrying ethylene oxide, a flammable chemical that the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration lists as being tied to cancer, reproductive problems, and mutagenic changes. The train car tumbles off the tracks near the small community of Lawrence, raising fears that the ethylene oxide could harm not only first responders, but also residents in the outlying area.
For first responders trained to deal with hazardous materials, or hazmat, and railroad companies alike, the risks of hazardous chemicals on the railroads are a fact of life.
An estimated 6 percent of all rail traffic involves the movement of some sort of hazardous materials, according to the Illinois Commerce Commission’s 2006 report on accidents and incidents involving hazardous materials on Railroads in Illinois.
Given that more than 40,000 rail cars traverse the state’s about 7,200 miles of line, that means that 2,400 cars could carry hazardous material on any given workday.
But that doesn’t mean you should sell your house near the train tracks right now, Huntley Fire Capt. Ken Caudle said.
In two decades of handling hazardous spills, Caudle said this was the first time in his memory that this particular combination of derailment and hazardous chemical had applied.
“We get leaky cars, occasionally, but we don’t get derailments,” said Caudle, who also is the team leader for McHenry County’s hazmat force. “There’s nothing to worry about. The chance of [another] tornado coming in January, hitting a moving train at 35 mph, I’d have a better chance of winning the lottery.”
Securing the scene
The tornado, which hit speeds up to 110 mph on its 13.2-mile, 18-minute trek from the east edge of Poplar Grove to just northeast of Harvard, also ripped apart homes and flipped a semi-truck.
Given that it crossed two counties into areas that are covered by both the McHenry County Sheriff’s Department and Harvard Fire Protection District, which agency was responsible for heading up the derailment?
Initially, the Harvard Fire Protection District. But Harvard recognized the situation and called for help from the McHenry-Lake hazmat team.
Caudle said 35 technicians made up the first wave of responders and that the scene took about 20 hours to secure. Residents within a mile-and-a-half of the area were evacuated, and hazmat technicians from both the Union Pacific Railroad and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency helped clean up.
An initial fear that the ethylene oxide spilled from the tanker carrying it proved unfounded, although Caudle said a different tank car, hauling a less-dangerous oil, did leak into the area. The radius of the evacuation was established based on real-time reports from a portable weather station, Caudle said.
“Given the extent and the magnitude of it, it went extremely well,” Caudle said. “It’s kind of a two-fold thing: Thank God it was warm out, but if it wasn’t so warm, we wouldn’t have tornados in January.”
Yeric Yarrington, manager of the engineering and assessment unit of the Illinois EPA office of emergency response, said federal regulations offered different guidelines when it came to handling hazardous chemicals.
Weather issues, such as tornados, can compound the challenges that hazmat teams face in cleaning up a spill, Yarrington said.
“We don’t want to tie up access for ambulances,” he said. “Then again, we have to look at what are the potential chemicals or potential hazards. It does add a lot more activity when there’s a tornado than if it was just a derailment.”
A community response
Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the car hauling the ethylene oxide had been stabilized and could be moved out of the area this week.
Ethylene oxide can be used to sterilize medical equipment, although it mostly is used as an interim chemical in the manufacturing of textiles, detergents, polyurethane foam, antifreeze, medicinals, solvents and adhesives, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site.
Still, Davis said, those chemicals have to get from point A to point B somehow. Union Pacific is the leading rail hauler of hazardous materials, Davis said, a position that the company takes seriously.
“Over the years, because of our expertise, ... we’ve been able to help with the design of tank cars,” he said. “We meet or beat transportation-related regulations. There’s so much that goes into it.”
But Harvard resident Julie Laffin still worries about the prevalence of chemicals on the county’s rails. Laffin, who estimated that she lives 2 miles from the spot where the train derailed, is extremely sensitive to chemicals.
And although she said she didn’t experience any illness from the incident, she added that she was uneasy with the situation Monday afternoon.
Her worries actually drove her away from her home Monday evening, even though it fell outside the evacuation radius.
“I feel really fortunate for all of our community that it wasn’t an actual leak,” Laffin said. “I would hate to think about what the impact of an actual leak would be.”