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

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

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Trains carry tens of thousands of gallons of deadly and dangerous chemicals through Berkeley, Dorchester, and Charleston counties.

"It's a concern," Summerville Fire Chief Richard Waring said. "We are aware that it's there. We're going to prepare our personnel."

While tanker trucks travel local roads every day, a national safety consultant says trains are much more dangerous.

"A hazmat truck is maybe 10,000 gallons," Fred Millar, who has worked with railroad engineers and insurance companies for 30 years, said. "It's very much smaller than a 90-ton chlorine tank car, so a firefighter who thinks he can deal with a truckload of crude oil realizes that if he's dealing with a tank car of crude oil, that's an entirely different animal."

It's a very real concern for the Tri-County.

"In the event of a large train carrying lots of hazardous materials, if that were to overturn certainly in a populated area, that's a big problem," North Charleston Fire Chief Greg Bulanow said.

Three years ago, the College of Charleston studied the risk of transportation emergencies in Berkeley, Dorchester, and Charleston counties. It shows the people most at risk are in downtown Summerville, downtown Charleston, and a large part of North Charleston.

"As a port community, we're at an increased risk for transportation emergencies including rail disasters," Bulanow said.

The North Charleston and Summerville fire departments train for the worst, like the deadly crash in Graniteville near Aiken where chlorine gas leaked from a train, killing nine.

"We look at what happened in Graniteville and actually use those types of things from around the country, not just in Graniteville to help us prepare to handle those types of incidents," Waring said.

Waring says the town's department has monthly drills to prepare for an explosion or chemical leak.

"We have a 30-member hazardous materials response team that are prepared to respond to these kinds of emergencies," Waring said. "Some of them have thorough specialized training with chlorine gas and those types of chemicals."

North Charleston has a similar unit to handle hazmat spills.

"They're not going to happen very often," Bulanow said. "They're quite rare thankfully but when they do, there's a lot of negative potential."

The response for an accident depends on a lot of factors, like the chemical, the wind direction, and the threat of an explosion or fire.

"We understand communities concerns about the nature of the products we are moving," Rob Doolittle, the Director of Communications for CSX said.

"We work very closely with first responders and emergency response organizations to make sure they have the information and the training that they need to respond effectively if there is an incident," Doolittle said.

Waring said Summerville hasn't trained with CSX in a few years and North Charleston says it's been a little more than a year since they last worked with CSX.

New measures proposed by the Obama administration call for better brakes, lower speeds and stronger cars for trains carrying flammable chemicals.

"I support measures to improve rail safety," Bulanow said.

Train safety expert Fred Millar says regulations can still be stronger.

"I think we should not be optimistic," Millar said. "We need to really fight hard to counter the lobbying from the rail industry and the oil industry, which you can imagine is extremely powerful."

"Safety is CSX's highest priority," Millar said. "Zero accidents is our goal."

Until accidents stop happening, both Summerville and North Charleston say they'll keep preparing for the worst.

"We respond to emergencies as our job," Bulanow said. "That's what we do and worry is not constructive but preparation is."

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