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Forrest County Train Derailment Reminds Coast of Potential Danger

By Keith Burton   3/9/07 GCN

Thursday's train derailment in Forrest County near Hattiesburg sent a chill across the Mississippi Coast with fears that such a disaster could easily occur here, and in a much more densely populated area.

Hazardous materials experts are still going over the wrecked railroad cars operated by the Kansas City Southern railroad. Thursday morning's train derailment and subsequent chemical spill forced dozens of Forrest County residents out of their homes and sent at least five people to the hospital. The wreck also spread an unknown quantity of dangerous substances into nearby waterways.

Two of eight Kansas City Southern rail cars that left the tracks ruptured, releasing liquefied sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid about a quarter-mile south of U.S. 98 East. Nearby, about 40 homes were evacuated and a even a temporary Red Cross shelter was established.

On the Coast, the primary railroad line is operated by CSX railroad. As everyone in the area know, the CSX track runs less than a quarter mile from the busy beach highway, U.S. 90,  and bisects the Biloxi peninsula. But even more, the CSX line runs near the heart of every Coast city from Pascagoula to Waveland. The railroad line's proximity to busy businesses and neighborhoods makes a chemical spill derailment a real concern. In addition, the frequency of the CSX trains often halt emergency responders from Biloxi's fire and police departments.

While a derailment that resulted in a chemical leak has not occurred along the CSX track, city and county officials on the Coast are ready, as much as they can be, for an accident. Along the Coast, from 22 to 35 trains a day pass through they area. Numerous crossings, which often include the passage of heavy trucks, move in between the train traffic. At any time, a cement truck or tanker truck could find itself in the headlights of a train. These big trucks have the capability of derailing a train. If fact, GCN has observed several trucks trapped on the RR crossing at Iberville Drive where the track crossing rises on a small hill sloped too steeply for the truck to cross.

GCN contacted Biloxi officials to learn about that city's train disaster preparedness plan. Remarkably, the day before the Forrest County derailment, Biloxi and Keesler A.F.B. officials were running a practice drill near Keesler's main entrance at White Avenue, which crosses the CSX railroad track.

"Coincidentally, the city was participating in a training exercise Wednesday morning that involved the very scenario that occurred in Forrest County," said Vincent Creel, the city's public information director.

"The training exercise, which is part of Keesler’s readiness plan, tested the coordination and capabilities of civil and military first responders to a major incident. The scenario involved a train derailment near White Avenue, which necessitated closing of White Avenue and parts of Irish Hill Drive," Creel said.

Keesler personnel visited homes on Irish Hill Drive on Tuesday so residents wouldn’t be alarmed.

Creel went on to say,

"As far as our preparedness for a major incident where hazardous chemicals could be released, the Biloxi Fire Department has a hazardous-materials incident response team (you may recall their work load increasing dramatically back when people were concerned about receiving anthrax in the mail).

"All Biloxi firefighters have basic hazardous-materials training, and more than a third of Biloxi firefighters have enhanced training, making them hazardous-materials technicians of one degree or another. These men are stationed on various shifts throughout the city. We also have a haz-mat team on duty 24/7 at the Lopez-Quave Public Safety Center, and we’ve been able to use Homeland Security funds to purchase equipment (vehicles and decontamination equipment) and we have a generous supply of haz-mat suits for our first responders."

Creel says that four of Biloxi's firefighters are part of a six-county Regional Response Team that is designed to deal with major incidents involving hazardous materials.

Training is also a big part of Biloxi's preparedness plan for derailments.

In 2006, the Biloxi Fire Department’s Training Division conducted 26,940 hours of firefighter training. The training included a variety of topics concerning the fire department, CPR/AED and recruit training both in the classroom and field; 3.870 hours of Incident Command training ensured the Biloxi Fire Department was 100 percent compliant with mandatory National Incident Management System Homeland Security requirements, 800 hours to the department’s annual Skills Assessment, and on top of that, an additional 14.590 man hours of training was conducted by station supervisors at the nine individual stations throughout the city.

Creel says that  members of the Biloxi Fire Department were put on alert and were on standby if needed for assistance on the Forrest County incident.

But while the larger cities on the Coast have plans, training and the equipment to act, the situation is not so good for the smaller communities, such as Long Beach, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis and Waveland. Those communities do not have the same level of readiness, equipment and manpower and would need the assistance of the Regional Response Team in case of a hazardous chemical train wreck, which would take time to get on the scene.

Since the CSX line runs through the heart of the Coast's cities, many of these cities have constructed their main fire stations and police headquarter near the tracks. A derailment near one of these city centers could disable a city's ability to respond if the headquarter buildings were within the hazard area.

But in every case where a train derailment occurs and hazardous chemicals are released, the nearby public will have to act before help arrives and they would need the information on what has happened and what to do. At this time, and as it was evident from immediately after Katrina, there is no single communication source that the public can rely upon for emergency information. Radio stations are not effectively linked to emergency management offices and most people rely on television, which they will not see while traveling in their car near a derailment to avoid the area. Nearby home owners may also not hear about the danger until it is too late.

With about 4,300 shipments of hazardous material traveling daily on our nation’s rail system, an accidental or intentional derailment could occur anywhere, impacting an entire community

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