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We sought railroad hazmat records from 12 central Pa. counties; only 3 provided detailed lists

  • Shelby Bradford
  • Katie Knol
A train moves crosses Walnut Street near Columbia River Park Monday, May 15, 2023.

 Blaine Shahan / LNP | LancasterOnline

A train moves crosses Walnut Street near Columbia River Park Monday, May 15, 2023.

Outside Lancaster County, how much information do county officials and emergency responders have throughout central Pennsylvania?

We reached out to 11 counties to ask those questions of emergency responders and submitted Right-to-Know requests seeking information on hazardous materials moving by rail through each county. Here are their responses.

Adams County

County Administrator Steve Nevada said Adams County has the annual list of what comes through the county on trains and has a response plan, but did not provide details. The county did not formally respond to the Right-to-Know request.

Berks County

Brian Gottschall, director of Berks County Department of Emergency Services, said for the most part, they don’t know about most hazardous materials coming through the county – and said “counties generally do nothing” to monitor movement of hazardous materials, “as we are not uniquely aware of them.”

The Right-to-Know request was formally denied, saying the information isn’t kept by the county.

He said a train derailment would be treated as would any hazardous materials incident.

“When it is recognized that there is a hazardous material involved, the county’s hazmat team would mobilize. To the extent we need additional support, we would contact surrounding teams for mutual aid and our state and federal partners are almost always involved in some way, even in relatively minor releases.”

Cumberland County

Samantha Krepps, Cumberland County communications director, said the emergency management plan is an “all-hazards plan” and that there are “specific response levels for Hazmat team response.”

Norfolk Southern’s Enola yard is in Cumberland County. She said the county uses AskRail and other “software materials” to identify what’s on a train. In response to the Right-to-Know request, the county said it doesn’t maintain those records.

Dauphin County

Christopher Fisher, deputy director for the emergency management office, said the county doesn’t have advance information on what’s on trains coming through Dauphin County. He said the county gets a Commodity Flow Study, a yearly report from the train company that lists what materials were transported through the county in the previous calendar year. Dauphin uses AskRail for train incidents.

Fisher, who is also the county’s emergency management coordinator, said Dauphin County recently held emergency response training and is reviewing the exercise for potential improvements.

Referring to large-scale disasters like derailments and floods, he said, “Even though the cause of a disaster is different, a lot of the actions that are going to need to be taken are very similar.”

In response to the Right-to-Know request, the county said it does not maintain those records.

Franklin County

Mary K Seville, assistant director of the emergency services department, said through a spokesperson that the county does not know what’s coming through on trains. It would either get a list from the railroad or use AskRail.

She said they are interested in “after-action items” following the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment to review and consider them for training or response plans.

The county denied the Right-to-Know request, saying it does not maintain those records.

Juniata County

Allen Weaver, the county’s emergency management coordinator, said Juniata County has a list of what comes through each year but doesn’t know that information on a daily basis.

In response to the Right-to-Know request, the county provided a detailed list of hazardous materials that moved through the county in 2020. The 11 chemicals listed did not include vinyl chloride, which is at the center of the Ohio derailment in February.

Weaver said train companies provide extra training and extra education for emergency responders.

“I’m sure that area out there [East Palestine] thought they were prepared, too, but the sheer volume and the variables that comes with it — it’s hard to put out a number on preparedness,” he said.

Lancaster County 

Lancaster County responded with a commodity list from 2021, the most recent available, that detailed 28 most common hazardous materials running through the county on rail. The county also later provided the Hazardous Rail Transit  (HART) Plan for Lancaster County, which addresses railroad transportation risks and gives emergency responders a general response plan.

Lebanon County

The county doesn’t know what chemicals are passing through on trains in advance or in real time, and the Right-To-Know request was denied because Lebanon County doesn’t maintain those records.

Gary Verna, deputy director of emergency management, said they use the AskRail app. He said trains are supposed to have a list showing what the train is carrying, how much and where on the train it is, to be provided to first responders. Verna said Lebanon County reviews its response plan for train derailments every year.

“That’s what we worked towards, is absolute preparedness,” he said. “It really starts with the local community, with how well they’re prepared also in case a disaster happens with a rail line.”

Mifflin County

Philip Lucas, the county’s emergency services director, said Mifflin County gets a list of some materials coming through on trains but not a complete list. They could pay an outside company to get a more complete picture of what’s transported through Mifflin County, but he said they haven’t done that “in about eight years.”

He said there is an average of a small derailment (one to three cars) every 18 months, and a larger derailment (5-15 cars) every three years.

He said the main focus right after a derailment is on “defensive practices” — digging trenches to divert spilled materials from waterways.

Northumberland County

Northumberland County EMA coordinator Stephen Jeffery said the county doesn’t know what’s coming through day to day. They can use AskRail, he said, but they don’t check it every day, and timely information isn’t guaranteed because of delays that can happen on rail lines.

“You can plan for the least-case scenario or the most-case scenario, but until it actually presents itself, you’re not sure what’s going to happen,” he said.

The Right-to-Know request was denied, because the county does not maintain those records.

Perry County

Rich Fultz, emergency management director, said that Norfolk Southern has information on what’s coming through Perry County but that he can’t release it. The county sought a 30-day extension to respond to the Right-to-Know request, which originally was made June 6.

He said that local first responders along rail routes make decisions on what to do if derailment happens and that the county office is not very involved with the plans. The East Palestine, Ohio, derailment and controlled release did not impact Perry County’s planning, he said.

“Our response depends on things like mutual aid from other counties,” he said. “We hope it never happens, but if it does happen, our plans and processes will hopefully be sufficient to deal with it.”

York County

Cody Santiago, county emergency management director, said they get an annual list of what’s coming through but not day-to-day information.

York County provided a detailed list of dozens of hazardous materials that moved through the county for the 12 months that ended March 2022. They included petroleum crude oil, propane, sulfuric acid, butane, ethanol, chlorine, methanol, hydrochloric acid and radioactive material.

He said the hazmat team has a specific plan for rail incidents and uses AskRail. No changes are planned in response to the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment, but he said they have talked about communications strategy to ensure effective messaging if something happens.

“How you handle an incident, especially initially, matters, because hazardous materials are potentially a lot different than going to a house fire or a car fire,” he said.

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