Live 5 Investigates: Trains carry deadly chemicals through Tri-County

Live 5 Investigates: Are local first responders ready to handle a rail disaster?

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Dangerous and deadly chemicals come through Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester counties regularly, but the state keeps no records of what exactly they are.

In 2005, chlorine gas and sodium hydroxide covered Graniteville near Aiken after two trains collided. The wreck and chemicals killed nine people and injured more than 500.

Both chemicals are still carried throughout the state, including through the Tri-County.

"There is a potential for a large scale disaster," North Charleston Fire Chief Greg Bulanow said.

"They're hauling a lot of petroleum-based products through town which of course is a fire hazard and we have some chlorine that comes through town and those kind of things," Summerville Fire Chief Richard Waring said. "Naturally, those kind of chemicals coming through town, it is a concern."

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration or PHMSA tracks HAZMAT spills. According to PHMSA, in the last three years, trains have either derailed or spilled hazardous materials at least six times in the Charleston area.

Last year, sulfuric acid spilled from a train in North Charleston injuring one person. A month later, a toxic gas called methanol polluted the air after a crash in Charleston.

"We know that lots of hazardous materials come through our area and they come in through the port and they go throughout the country on rail, so it's not something that just concerns our community," Bulanow said.

Rail companies are not required to report the chemicals they carry, but they do have regulations for oil after recent accidents across the US.

CSX and Norfolk Southern are the two lines coming through the Tri-County.

A records request from the State Department of Health and Environmental Control revealed neither company carries more than one million gallons of Bakken crude oil in North Dakota, which is all the companies are required to report.

DHEC also said it does not keep records of any hazardous materials coming through the state, but both Bulanow and Waring said from talking to the rail companies, they know it's tens of thousands of gallons of dangerous chemicals like chlorine, ammonia, and flammable petroleum.

"These trains literally come in many areas, through people's property, 20 feet away from people's backyards," Fred Millar, a rail safety expert said.

Millar has worked with railroad engineers and insurance companies for 30 years.

"In 90-ton tank cars for example chlorine and ammonia and LPG, which rail car by rail car are even more dangerous than a crude oil rail car," Millar said.

Tank cars each have signs that show what they're carrying. You can check those signs and numbers with the DOT guidebook.

"The problem is that these railcars set each other off and you get a giant fire event, which if it happens in a downtown area, could be a disaster of big proportions," Millar said.

First responders say they work to stay prepared. The second part of our investigation shows how much of a risk rail disasters are and how prepared first responders are to handle them.

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