Is York County ready for an East Palestine-type train disaster?

Anthony Maenza
York Dispatch

Trains crisscross York County on a daily basis with residents hardly giving them a second thought.

After a train derailment and fire that set off an ongoing environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, many in the county are considering the worst-case scenarios that could play out along the county's freight lines.

One such scenario could see a train derailing near the Susquehanna River. If one of the tank cars starts to leak its toxic cargo, it could lead to concerns not only for the people who live nearby but also for downstream communities and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

“There are a lot of different types of chemicals with different chemical properties that are transported through our county,” said Cody Santiago, the county's emergency management director. “Some are explosive and some are not."

An estimated 24,000 pounds of hazardous materials is transported across York County's 160 miles of rail each day, according to the county's hazard mitigation plan and other documents.

Santiago said roughly a third of the material carried across the county by rail is deemed hazardous. Of that, nearly half are flammable liquids, such as crude oil; 19% are flammable gases; and 13% are corrosive materials.

The rest of the materials, he said, could be as benign as milk.

"You don’t know what’s inside a train car or on the back of a trailer on a truck until you can see a placard or see the design of the train car or the type of trailer that it is," he said.

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Has vinyl chloride, which has caused the explosive fire and water contamination in East Palestine, come through York County by rail? York County Emergency Management spokesman Ted Czech said that, as of 2022, no facilities in York County used or shipped the toxic resin used to make a variety of plastic products.

If the volatile chemical does come through the county, Santiago said, officials use an app to track when and where it's coming from.

Trains sitting near E. Chestnut St. in York in York on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023

“You can punch in a train number and it can tell you what elements are on a train, what chemical or what the train is transporting,” he said. “There is not a lot of front-end coordination (with rail companies) but we are aware of the things that move through our county on a daily basis.” 

Although having such elements rolling through by rail can be concerning, York County so far has avoided any major spills.

In the past 10 years, Santiago said, York County reported 54 train accidents, including eight derailments. If a train derails, he said, it doesn’t always indicate a major incident. Some are relatively minor incidents in rail yards.

According to safety reports, none of those recent incidents resulted in the release of hazardous materials.

“It’s a very low frequency and low-probability event" in York County, Santiago said, "but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't have the things in place to take care of it.”

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York County's most recent train derailments happened in 2021. There were two incidents, and both involved Norfolk Southern, the rail company that owned the train that derailed in East Palestine. 

The first occurred on June 28, 2021, in Newberry Township near Goldsboro. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, PVC pellets spilled from one of the cars that overturned and had to be cleaned up. There were 52 cars carrying hazardous materials, 18 of which derailed. However, none of the cars spilled their contents, which included benzene, butane and crude oil.

Santiago was one of the responders to the incident.

“There wasn’t a whole lot for us to do," he said, "but make sure the train company and their contractor cleaned the rail line up, which they did.”

Cody Santiago, Director of the York County Office of Emergency Management, at the OEM building in York on Friday, Feb.17, 2023.

The second derailment occurred Oct. 28, 2021, near York Haven.

According to an FRA report, 28 of the train’s 131 cars derailed, all of them carrying coal. One of the coal cars overturned and spilled its cargo near Conewago Creek. A Harrisburg-based contractor, Miller Environmental Group, was tasked with corralling the spilled coal and cleaning up the water.

Based on available records, the most recent train derailment on par with what happened in East Palestine ocurred in 1963.

On April 28 of that year, a mechanical failure on one of the cars caused a derailment in Dillsburg. Sparks from that mechanical failure caused debris to catch fire, which soon spread to cars carrying chlorine gas.

Firefighters were upwind of the blaze, trying to keep the tanks cool, according to reports from the time. When the wind shifted, however, they were forced to flee the toxic chlorine fumes. As the fire grew in intensity, two cars carrying propane exploded, creating what was described as a mushroom cloud.

Amazingly enough, reports from time indicated there were no fatalities.

Contaminants getting into surface water is currently a concern for East Palestine residents. Both of York County's 2021 derailments took place in close proximity to the Susquehanna River. Major rail lines run parallel to the river in both York County and Lancaster County.

The Susquehanna River facing York County in Marietta on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023.

Ted Evgeniadis, executive director of the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, said having contaminants get into the river because of an East Palestine-style derailment is a real concern. 

“There are rail lines all up and down this river and they’re very close to it,” he said. “That type of scenario that happened in Ohio and one we just saw again up north, they can happen anywhere.”

Evgeniadis said he responded to a 2021 incident in Goldsboro near the river but, in that specific case, it wasn't significant enough to result in a spill.

The risk is always there.

“It’s a major waterway between the two counties whether it’s recreational or commercial use," Evgeniadis said. "The river or any waterway is a concern because even the tributaries and streams, just because they aren’t a part of the river, it won’t get there eventually. It’s always a concern and it’s always something that is discussed and trained on.” 

Coordination among several agencies to put booms in place to keep hazardous materials from getting in the water is part of the training. 

Cody Santiago, Director of the York County Office of Emergency Management, at the OEM building in York on Friday, Feb.17, 2023.

Case studies and after-action reviews are often done locally when a major event like the one in East Palestine occurs, Santiago said. The agencies use those events to learn from. 

“We try not to repeat history because that means we potentially are putting lives at stake,” Santiago said. 

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If a disaster like the one in East Palestine occurs in York County, it will likely take a group effort similar to fighting the warehouse fire in Red Lion on Feb. 19.

Thirty fire companies from six counties responded to the scene of that five-alarm fire as the Office of Emergency Management told area residents to shelter in place. Air quality was monitored and some oil got into a nearby creek, which was contained.

York City Fire Chief William Sleeger said coordinating that many fire companies in one area isn't as hard as it may sound.

"We have a unified command system," Sleeger said. "It starts with the home department wherever you have the incident and from there it will branch out. When you get into a large-scale event like that, that's where you bring in other folks like the Office of Emergency Management."

York City Fire Chief William Sleeger, Jr., during the City of York Department of Fire and Rescue Services Promotion and Awards Ceremony held at City Hall in York City, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Chief Sleeger would announce the recipient of the 2021 Firefighter of the Year Award to be Capt. Kevin L. Pflaum, who was not present to receive his award. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A unified command system allows for certain responsibilities to be assigned to the various agencies who respond to a major emergency, such as a derailment. And county officials say every firefighter receives hazmat training.

“I really am proud to be in York County where there are a plethora of resources and folks who are willing to show up in the darkest hours of someone’s worst time of their life and continue to train and be a part of those organizations even after they’re done," Santiago said.

If there is a East Palestine-type of emergency, York County would immediately set up a mobile incident command post. Once on the scene, Santiago said, there are many factors to consider.

"We’ll look at the weather. We’ll look at how the incident has gone so far," Santiago said. "We might sit with the fire chief and ask what did you learn when you got here? What did you see? By the time we get there, things can change. We want to know what they saw and try and gain as much situational awareness as possible.” 

The Office of Emergency Management would then call upon the resources at its disposal. OEM has four hazmat vehicles of its own equipped with things like hazmat suits. York County has a hazmat team made up of 30 volunteers trained to respond to situations involving toxic chemicals.

York County is part of the nine county South Central Task Force. The nine counties have mutual aid agreements between one another to supply resources if a major emergency like East Palestine occurs here. Along with York, those counties are Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry and Schuylkill. York County also has an Incident Management Team of a group of public safety professionals from a variety of areas of expertise.

Cody Santiago, Director of the York County Office of Emergency Management, showing a first responder's guidebook at the OEM building in York on Friday, Feb.17, 2023.

“It’s just a bucket of really knowledgeable experts that both understand the hazmat world as well as the incident management world," Santiago said, "because that is deeply important to have when something like this happens.”

Operations staff are also part of the team who clean up and make sure the situation is stable and that people are safe — or if they are not safe, what protective measures must be taken to make them safe. There are planning and logistics experts who prepare for future incidents and make sure the team has all the situational awareness needed, such as weather reports, or people, or resource replacement to give those on site a break. They also make sure the people on the scene have food, medical attention and places to sleep or rest. 

The Incident Management Team has handled 40 calls so far in 2023, Santiago said, which is on pace to break a record. Not all the incidents have been significant, he added, and several were resolved by initial responders before the team's arrival. In practice, the team is sometimes called as a precaution in case they are needed.

“They aren’t usually major things, but that’s not to say we don’t have incidents of significance every year,” Santiago said. 

When they come upon a hazmat situation, the Emergency Response Guidebook comes in handy. Those guidebooks explain how to decipher the placards attached to tank cars on trains and trucks to determine what they are carrying. They also tell responders what they can and can't use to neutralize the hazmat situation and what sort of gear should be worn around the material.

Cody Santiago, Director of the York County Office of Emergency Management, showing a first responder's guidebook at the OEM building in York on Friday, Feb.17, 2023.

“There is nothing fast about hazmat,” Santiago said. “We really have to make sure we know what we are dealing with and our teams know what they are dealing with when they go into something like that. You apply the wrong substance to neutralize or stabilize the situation, you could make it worse.” 

When the team arrives on the scene, they assess what is happening: What’s in the cars? How much is in the cars? What personal protective equipment is needed? Is there an imminent threat to the safety of the public and the responders?

“It’s not always a fast-paced response because there are a lot of calculations that go into how you respond to something like East Palestine," Santiago said.

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Even after the initial threat has been neutralized, the aftermath has to be planned for as well. After the emergency is over, the emergency management team oversees contracted crews that do the cleanup work. Monitoring the water and air quality is one of those duties. 

"Just because you neutralize a threat, and they are finding that out now in East Palestine, just because the chemicals aren’t in the train or they aren’t really an active threat in the train any more, doesn't mean they aren’t an active threat to nature, or people or drinking water or air quality," Santiago said. "Those are things we have to be aware of.” 

Trains sitting near E. Chestnut St. in York in York on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023

Taking care of the workers on the ground who are doing the work, Santiago said, is as important as any part of an emergency situation, especially when resolving the event takes a long time. 

The financial aspect of the emergency also has to be considered, such as who is paying for the cleanup, who is paying for the damage and who will pay for housing those who may have to be evacuated to another area for an extended period of time.

Of course, all of that preparation leaves one question.

If an incident like the East Palestine train disaster strikes York County, will we be ready?

Santiago, a thoughtful person by nature, considers the question.

“I don’t know you can ever say with confidence that you will be ready,” Santiago said. “How it happened in East Palestine is probably not how it would happen in York County. It could, but the incidents likely are going to look different. So, to say with confidence we’re ready to go and there are going to be no issues — that's something I would not say."