String of derailments plagues Ohio communities

STEUBENVILLE — During the past four months, three freight trains have derailed in Ohio.

The first, in October, was in Sandusky, where about 20 cars from a 101-car train left the track and landed on a heavily used road about 15 feet below. That train was carrying paraffin, which leaked out of the wrecked cars and then hardened on the roadway and in sewers.

A month later, about 15 cars derailed between Steubenville and Toronto, spilling garbage on the bank and into the river.

And on Friday, about 50 cars, some of them carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash in East Palestine. Authorities are still trying to stabilize the materials have set up an evacuation area that extends into Pennsylvania.

Jefferson County 911 Director Rob Herrington said derailments like the one enveloping the East Palestine community are “relatively rare.”

“This particular derailment is bad because so many cars derailed,” he said, and because of the toxic materials and threat of exploding tanker cars.

That, at least, was something they didn’t have to worry about in Sandusky.

“Their’s is lot more impactful than what we had,” Interim City Manager John Orzech said. “Ours was paraffin wax, liquid in form until it came out of the car and hardened, but it wasn’t hazardous.”

Sandusky’s problem now is that, four months after the derailment, their city isn’t back to normal.

“The underpass is still closed until we get that area safe for people to travel,” he said. “It’s the main thoroughfare in town, and people are having to take alternate routes. (Norfolk Southern) acted quickly to get the cars that derailed cleared and the track fixed, but afterward, all the other processes…the concrete walls and other stuff that were damaged…are slower moving. Trains were moving again in a couple of days but there was a lot of collateral damage.”

Orzech said residents are “a little frustrated” because they were supposed to have at least one lane reopened two months ago and it still hasn’t happened.

“We entered into a memorandum of understanding with a contractor to get some work done that has to get done, that the railroad told us they’re going to pay for,” he said. “But we have no idea how much it’s going to cost yet.”

He said a pump house that moves water away from the underpass so it doesn’t flood was severely damaged,” and there are a lot of costs we’re going to have to make sure they reimburse us for … streets. Our sewer system — we have paraffin wax in ours, it had a lot of wax in there so we’re going to have to redo it. The sidewalks, the street area — but the street can’t get done until the asphalt (vendors) open back up.”

Still, he’s optimistic: Sandusky’s engineer is in contact with Norfolk Southern, he said, and four months later, “we think we’re on the right track, it’s just a matter of fixing everything back up.”

Herrington said the safety records of railroads has gotten better as technology has been updated.

“A lot goes on behind the scenes to make it safe,” he said. “A lot of times when you see drailments, anymore it’s because things that happen … landslides, things like that that have nothing to do with railroads, it’s more Mother Nature. It’s a relatively safe business and it’s heavily regulated.”

“With railroad tracks, you may have hazardous products,” he adds. “It’s an everyday part of life, but there are a lot of regulations on what and how much of each product is allowed ship, how many can be located together on a train.”

Norfolk Southern did not comment Monday on the string of derailments, their safety record or a timeline for when the East Palestine situation might normalize, saying team members “are on scene and will be assisted by multiple derailment and environmental contractors.”

“In addition to working closely with first responders, we are coordinating with federal, state and local agencies,” the statement read. “The NTSB will be the lead agency for providing updates on the incident. We have established a family assistance center to address the needs of the community and support those directly impacted. Additionally, we are supporting the efforts of the American Red Cross and their temporary community shelters through a $25,000 donation.”


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