Baton Rouge officials may not know exactly what potentially hazardous or dangerous materials are traveling on railroad lines through the city at all times, but they do have a nickname for it — “methyl ethyl awful.”
“If people know about the railroad, they feel there’s very little the city can do,” Mayor-President Kip Holden said.
The mayor-president’s comments came days after the derailment of a train in Canada on July 6 that involved more than 70 tanker cars filled with oil that came loose and sped downhill toward Lac-Megantic, Quebec, resulting in explosions and deadly fire in a populated area.
The Canada accident, which remains under investigation, has captured the attention of some Baton Rouge officials. There is enough potentially dangerous materials going by rail through Baton Rouge every day that the conversation about safety has arisen many times before.
Most recently, talks took place following a 2005 derailment in downtown Baton Rouge.
On Memorial Day 2005, three railroad cars owned by Canadian National Railway Co. came off the tracks near the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial and Museum. The derailment forced some downtown evacuations, including members of the American Bowling Congress tournament being held at the Baton Rouge River Center.
The railroad cars carried flammable propylene oxide, but none of the cars leaked.
No one was injured, but Holden had discussions with the railway company because the derailment was a “wake-up call” for anyone who lives or works downtown.
Eight years later, Holden says he still holds those concerns about the safety of hauling potentially dangerous materials along rail lines near residential areas. Discussions with the number of railroad companies that operate through Baton Rouge have resulted in some compromises and cooperation.
“They modified some of the times they bring the train through, like the Fourth of July. They work with us,” Holden said. “But still, you’re dealing with some very toxic chemicals coming through the heart of the city and other parts of the city.”
The federal agency that governs railroad operations said rail safety has improved over time.
“2012 was the safest year in railroading history and total train accidents have declined 43 percent since 2004,” Kevin Thompson, Federal Railroad Administration spokesperson, said in an email.
Thompson said the Federal Railroad Administration, attributes part of the improvement to routine inspections and audits to improve the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail.
“We audit the railroads to ensure their compliance and take enforcement actions if necessary,” Thompson said.
Some railroad companies say that have made some changes to the way they run trains through Baton Rouge, but others have said they haven’t.
“In the interest of public safety, when contacted by local organizers of major outdoor community events, KCS makes efforts when possible to coordinate train schedules with consideration to events attracting crowds of people,” Doniele Carlson, spokeswoman for Kansas City Southern said in an email.
However, they are seeing fewer trains operating through Baton Rouge, she said.
“The economic downturn a few years ago resulted in operating changes that decreased the number of KCS trains operating through Baton Rouge. Not all of the business has returned, yet,” Carlson said.
Canadian National Railway Co. spokesman Patrick Waldron said the company hasn’t made significant changes in their rail schedules or operations.
“We’re in regular contact with the city, but don’t have any comment on any specific event,” he said, referring to schedule changes for events such as the Fourth of July downtown celebration.
As far as safety, Waldron pointed to information from the Association of American Railroads that says in 2012 the North American railroads delivered more than 2.47 million carloads of hazardous materials and 99.9 percent of those reached their destination without a release.
“Railroads have a very solid record in transporting hazardous materials,” Waldron said.
However, when an accident does occur, it can be a problem.
For example, just before noon May 27, 2000, an eastbound Union Pacific Railroad train of 113 cars had 33 of those cars leave the track near Eunice. Of the derailed cars, 15 were carrying hazardous material and two contained hazardous material residue, according to information from the National Transportation Safety Board.
The resulting explosions and fire forced 3,500 people to evacuate. No one was injured.
If something were to happen with a train derailment involving hazardous material, the lead would be taken by the Baton Rouge Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials team.
“We are very prepared and a lot of that is thanks to railroad companies around here,” said Baton Rouge Fire Department Hazardous Material Chief Richard Sullivan.
Every year, the team goes to Colorado to train for a week specifically on railroad accidents involving hazardous materials.
“We know rail cars. We know them by sight on what they could carry,” Sullivan said. “Depending on the shape.”
In addition, as member of the Baton Rouge Area Mutual Aid System, the Baton Rouge Fire Department and others responding to an accident have access to equipment located with any of the members, which includes petro-chemical industries in the area.
“It’s very uncommon,” Sullivan said about derailments in the parish. “We may have to go to a rail yard for a spill. Most of the time when we go to the rail yard it’s for training.”
Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, whose district includes the downtown area, said the push to get more people and large businesses, such as IBM, to locate downtown has created the need to restart the safety discussion.
“While we understand we are a downtown area, we still have the concern that if we have an abundance of people who live and work downtown that’s something we need to consider. What’s coming through,” Wicker said.
Like Holden, Wicker expressed frustration about how little say the city-parish has over what moves on railroad lines.
“Working with the railroad is not the easiest conversation to have,” Wicker said.
Railcars with hazardous materials don’t just pass through downtown, but also through many neighborhoods in the city.
“It really hasn’t come up as an issue and I don’t think it’s something people are thinking about,” Wicker said. “But I think it’s something that’s better to be thought about sooner rather than later.”