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First Responders Train For Crude Oil Rail Disaster

by Susan Hellauer

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Ladders and hoses soak the oil train in the July 23 Rockland County drill for police, fire and EMT personnel. Photo Credit: Rockland County Sheriff’s Office

The quiet of a clear summer evening was suddenly shattered by an air horn blast last Thursday. Within moments, Rockland’s emergency radio frequencies came to life and first responders rushed to a staged event involving a collision between a vehicle and a CSX tanker train carrying volatile Bakken crude oil, at the Highview freight rail crossing near Route 303 in Orangeburg. Firefighters on tower ladders aimed hoses at the smoldering rail cars, while others extricated trapped victims. Police evacuated the area, closed roads, and directed traffic. EMS workers tended to the wounded and covered the dead.

The July 23 full-scale disaster exercise was conducted with the cooperation and assistance of CSX Railroad. Dozens of Rockland’s police, fire, EMS, Hazardous Materials agencies, town utilities, state and local health, environmental and emergency services organizations convened for a specially-designed simulation of a grade crossing accident and fire, using a CSX-provided “safety train.”

Trained volunteers played the roles of injured drivers and bystanders, with realistic wounds and reactions. Fire and EMS professionals and volunteers, and police brass, took on roles at incident command posts, to keep all the county’s assets working together efficiently and safely.

About 30 tanker trains filled with more than one million gallons each of volatile light crude roll through Rockland County every week. There have been at least twelve derailments of such trains, including several explosions and fires, since the increase in oil train traffic in 2013. The explosion of a runaway crude oil train in Lac Megantic in Quebec in July 2013 destroyed the town center and caused 47 fatalities. The most recent oil train mishap occurred in Montana on July 16, where 22 cars derailed, spilling 35,000 gallons of Bakken crude. It was traveling within the speed limit on tracks that are inspected four times a week, according to freight line owner BNSF Rail.

With densely populated areas like the Village of Haverstraw, Orangeburg condominium developments and the Palisades Mall in close proximity to CSX rail tracks that carry Bakken crude, crews drilled to be prepared in case the unthinkable ever happens.

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CSX Safety Train used for the exercise. Photo credit: Susan Hellauer

Homeland Security funds helped underwrite the exercise, the aim of which, according to a county press release, was “to evaluate and enhance capabilities for response to a coordinated, multi-jurisdiction, multi-disciplinary incident.”

Ambulances and other first responders from outside Orangetown were pre-positioned near the exercise for safety’s sake. Patients from the drill were, however, actually transported to area hospitals. Ambulances then returned to the exercise staging area, in order to test the EMS Mass Casualty Incident dispatch system, and to determine real-time turnaround and availability of rigs and crews. This also allowed area hospitals to test their disaster plans and capacity.

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Those near the simulated accident would have been soaked with highly flammable Bakken crude oil. Patients transported to Nyack Hospital were taken first to an outdoor decontamination shower station, where workers in yellow HAZMAT suits “deconned” them and turned them over to the ER for treatment.

At a pre-exercise press conference on Thursday, Rob Doolittle, Communications Director for CSX Railroad, said that “our goal is zero accidents,” and that CSX is pushing hard for safer and better rail tanker cars. The tankers that carry Bakken crude are usually owned or leased by the company shipping the oil, and not by CSX, according to Doolittle. Most of the recent oil train explosions have involved the upgraded, “safer” CPC-1232 tanker cars.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently ordered new speed restrictions on oil trains, and safer tanker cars to be phased in gradually, with complete replacement by 2020. Local lawmakers, as well as environmental groups, have blasted this schedule as far too slow. Oil companies have now filed lawsuits to overturn these new safety requirements altogether.

Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart said that an explosion and fire anywhere on the “virtual pipeline of oil and other materials” that runs though Rockland would be “the single most disastrous event that could happen.”

“It can happen here,”  said Rockland County Executive Ed Day, referencing the Lac Megantic disaster. “Pre-planning and being prepared in the event of an emergency is important to each and every citizen. Today’s drill will go a long way toward making Rockland County a safer, stronger community for all our residents,”  he said.

Susan Hellauer is a Bronx native and Nyack resident. She has been a volunteer with Nyack Community Ambulance Corps since 2001, and now serves as board member and Corps secretary. She teaches music and writing at Queens College and is a member of the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4.

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