Could a train derailment like East Palestine, Ohio, occur in the Inland Empire? – San Bernardino Sun

Alicia Aguayo grew up 2,400 miles from East Palestine, Ohio. But the train derailment there still hit close to home.

Aguayo, who lived as a child near train tracks on San Bernardino’s west side, said she was “extremely afraid and nervous” when she learned of the Feb. 3 derailment. That day, a 150-car Norfolk Southern train spilled hazardous chemicals and led to a controlled burn and billowing smoke plume in the eastern Ohio town of 4,700.

Aguayo’s family still lives less than a mile from the tracks. If an East Palestine-level derailment occurred in San Bernardino, “My niece and my family, it would really impact them,” said Aguayo, communications director for the Grand Terrace-based People’s Collective for Environmental Justice.

While derailments on the scale of East Palestine are rare, trains skipping the tracks might happen more than one thinks. Last year, the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates railroads, logged 1,049 derailments out of 535 million miles traveled. In 2013, there were 1,311 derailments among the 748 million miles traveled, The Washington Post reported.

Derailments are responsible for fewer than 1% of railroad-related fatalities, the Post reported, adding that the two main causes of railroad-connected deaths are trespassing on railroad property and train-vehicle collisions.

The Inland Empire is no stranger to train accidents.

In August, the 215 Freeway near Perris was closed in both directions for about 24 hours and residents of more than 170 homes were forced to flee after the discovery of highly flammable styrene — a chemical used in plastics — leaking from a rail car.

A rail car leaking styrene, a toxic substance, sits on the tracks near the intersection of Harvill and Old Oleander Avenues west of the 215 Freeway near Perris in August 2022. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
A rail car leaking styrene, a toxic substance, sits on the tracks near the intersection of Harvill and Old Oleander Avenues west of the 215 Freeway near Perris in August 2022. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Growing up, Aguayo said her mother would tell her stories about a 1989 San Bernardino derailment. A weight miscalculation and inoperative brakes caused a 69-car train to lose control downhill and crash into a residential area of Duffy Street, killing six and destroying multiple homes.

The disaster worsened when a fire raged for 13 hours after a petroleum pipeline ruptured during cleanup efforts.

Railroads have been a part of the Inland landscape since the 1800s. Today, two of the nation’s seven Class I railroads, used by the biggest freight haulers, crisscross Riverside and San Bernardino counties and run through Perris, Riverside, Corona, Redlands, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Colton, Rialto and Pomona, among other communities.

Trains ferry goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Inland region also is home to a booming logistics industry with hundreds of mega-warehouses.

Because of the volume of goods coming from the ports and into warehouses, “there’s always a possibility of a derailment and an accident,” said Nick Vyas, founding executive director of the Randall K. Kendrick Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

“That possibility exists more so for the Inland Empire.”

The longer the train, the greater the chance of derailment because of “any sudden stoppage or movement,” Vyas added.

Twenty-two million carloads of chemicals, including ethanol, sulfuric acid, ammonia, plastic materials and agricultural chemicals, traveled U.S. railroads in 2021, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group. More than 99.9% of all hazardous chemicals moved by rail reach their destination without incident, the association reported.

From 1994 to 2005, 14 people died from railroad accidents involving hazardous materials, the Federal Railroad Administration reported. In the same timeframe, 116 people died in highway accidents involving toxic cargo, the administration added.

The Union Pacific Railroad facility in Bloomington is seen in 2021. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The Union Pacific Railroad facility in Bloomington is seen in 2021. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Spokespeople for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific, which operate Inland freight trains, declined requests for phone interviews. Instead, they emailed statements detailing their companies’ safety protocols.

BNSF “regularly inspects all the components of our network … and we are committed to timely maintenance, repair and replacement whenever issues or potential issues are detected,” spokesperson Lena Kent said. Those inspections use advanced sensors, drones, ultrasounds and other high-tech equipment, she said.

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“These efforts, coupled with the use of specialized rail cars to carry hazmat, mobile apps to equip first responders with critical safety information, and a software system to determine the safest rail routes” ensure the safe transport of dangerous materials, Kent added.

BNSF also provides special railroad emergency and hazardous materials training to as many as 10,000 first responders annually and tells them what commodities are traveling through their communities, Kent said. Emergency response equipment is “strategically positioned” at more than 100 spots along BNSF’s network, she said.

Union Pacific’s hazmat teams perform about 5,000 inspections a year “auditing everything from tank car fittings and car markings to safety appliances” and all employees are trained in hazmat safety, spokesperson Robynn Tysver said.

The company also conducts annual drills “to make sure our emergency response plans remain effective and are followed by all employees,” Tysver added.

Meanwhile, the East Palestine derailment has members of the Inland Empire’s congressional delegation calling for greater scrutiny and oversight of the freight rail industry.

“Regulation of these rails are critical in ensuring the safety of every American, and these companies must be held accountable for any avoidable disaster caused under their watch,” Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, whose district includes Perris, said via email.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, “has deep concerns about the operations of major freight railroads,” his spokesman Kelly O’Keeffe, said via email, noting that a stopped Union Pacific train blocked three major intersections and tied up traffic for six hours in Beaumont in June.

In response to what happened in East Palestine, GOP and Democratic senators from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Florida are sponsoring a bill to prevent similar derailments. The Railway Safety Act of 2023’s proposals include stronger safety provisions for hazardous cargos and higher fines for infractions by rail companies.

Former Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster supports that bill, but also wants greater local oversight of freight trains.

“I think we have to have local eyes on this issue constantly,” said Buster, who was motivated by the incident in Perris last summer to write to the Board of Supervisors about his concerns.

There also needs to be “a regular independent inspector to come in and make sure that these specific (train) loads don’t overheat,” Buster added.

While the trillion-dollar federal infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in 2021 will address much-needed railroad improvements, “by the time it gets implemented and the dollars are allocated, maybe 20 cents on the dollar, if that” will make it to infrastructure projects, Vyas said.

“So we certainly have areas of improvement in terms of improving our infrastructure, improving our technology, improving our capability to enhance the safety standards.”

In the wake of the August leak, Perris has taken “expansive looks” at its emergency management plan to shift more money to its emergency operations center, Perris Mayor Michael Vargas said via a text message.

“With these new processes in place, combined with the leadership of our public safety teams, we are confident in our ability to respond to situations of this caliber in the future,” the mayor wrote.

California’s handling of wildfires plays a role in how it responds to train accidents, said Mark Scoville, Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department battalion chief.

Wildfire “incident management teams” can be used for train incidents by assembling key players like chemical experts, environmental scientists and railcar experts, said Scoville, who was the operations chief for the train chemical leak in August.

“That’s the biggest thing that needs to happen in any dynamic incident” like a derailment, Scoville said. “We put together the right team (and) the right people to come up with a (solution).”

When the leak happened, “the chemical company was very close-handed about what we were dealing with” and its volatility, Scoville said. “Once we got the EPA involved … they gave it up.”

While BNSF hailed the railcar, another company owned it and a third company owned the styrene.

As for Aguayo, she remains nervous about what could happen if toxic chemicals escape a rail car.

“My family, my mom thinks about that constantly in terms of what could be done to prevent that or what we should do,” she said. “Trains need more oversight … I think that we really should stop putting trains closer to people’s homes for once.”

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