On track for danger: Crude oil rail accidents difficult to prepa - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

On track for danger: Crude oil rail accidents difficult to prepare for

Residents and first-responders alike usually don't know when dangerous materials like crude oil pass through their vicinity. (Source: WAFF) Residents and first-responders alike usually don't know when dangerous materials like crude oil pass through their vicinity. (Source: WAFF)
(WAFF) -

Crude oil runs through North Alabama often. For some residents, the highly flammable chemical is cruising right through their backyard. 

However, most have no idea when, where and how much of it is traveling through. 

That includes first responders. 

While flammable chemicals aren't the most transported material in this area, experts say there is certainly still a risk to people and property. 

MORE: What materials ride the rails in your neighborhood?

The sound of train's whistle is something Geneva Wiggins Gray has gotten pretty used to.

"One comes through at about 5 in the morning and at night," said Gray, who has lived near the tracks for more than half a century. "If they are hauling [hazardous materials] and we are this close to the railroad track, I think they should let us know."

Train expert and safety consultant Ted Millar agrees, and says the public has every reason to be alarmed.

"We have the potential here for mass casualties with a giant fire event," said Millar.

Crude oil runs through several counties in the Tennessee Valley and North Alabama, including Limestone and Morgan Counties. The amount of crude oil being transported by rail across the country has risen 400% in just four years.

Millar says deadly derailments like the one in Quebec, killing 47, and the one just three months ago in West Virginia, displacing 125 people, only highlight the threat.

One of the largest railroad corporations in the country, CSX, says 99.95-percent of shipments reach their destination safely. 

WEB: CSX Alabama fact sheet

Still, they agree one accident is too many.

"We understand communities' concerns about the nature of the products we are moving, which is why we invest more than a billion dollars a year in our infrastructure to make sure our tracks are safe to support the transportation of the freight we're involved in," said Rob Doolittle, Director of Communications & Media Relations for CSX. "It's also why we work very closely with first responders and emergency response organizations to make sure they have the information and the training that they need to respond effectively if there is an incident." 

Millar says while that certainly sounds good, the fact is, first responders are not at all adequately prepared.

"Whatever experience people have in the fire service with an isolated tank car is just irrelevant," said Millar. "What we are dealing with here is a catastrophe that the fire service really could not deal with."

The Decatur Fire Department says they are armed with tools and federal guidelines like the Emergency Response Book. It helps them decode placards on railroad cars. 

They also have a computer system that allows them to look up a particular product and how to respond to it.

Still, Decatur Fire Battalion Chief Don Palmer says it's impossible to be 100-percent primed and ready.

"There is no way to be prepared for everything with our limited resources, however we do everything we can to train our personnel and keep them well equipped," said Palmer.

Decatur Fire also says they have limited information. That is because local responders in Alabama still remain in the dark when it comes to specific routes of rail cars. 

Just like you and me, they aren't privy to exactly when, where and how much crude oil comes through. That is despite a decision made last year by the Federal Government to make the information available to state officials. 

Public disclosure statements (PDF): AGR | BNSF | CSX

Alabama Emergency Management director Art Faulkner says Alabama chose to keep the information secure for a reason.

"We worked with the Secretary of Law Enforcement, Spencer Collier, to deem this information 'Homeland Security Information' because it could be utilized by individuals that wish to do harm," said Faulkner.

How real that threat of harm could be is debatable. There are zero reported incidents of attacks in the US on oil train cars, but there have been several examples of deadly derailments. 

It leaves people like Ms. Gray relying on a higher power. 

"I am trusting in God," said Gray. 

State officials say as soon as there is any kind of accident or derailment, the railroad and-or state officials will hand over any and all information about what the car is carrying.

Just a few weeks ago, The U.S. Department of Transportation announced that they would be strengthening standards when it comes to railroads. The standards include an enhanced braking system, reduced speed limits in high occupancy areas and phasing out older railroad cars.

MORE: Stronger standards announced, environmental groups say 'not enough'

Copyright 2015 WAFF. All rights reserved.
Powered by Frankly