Norfolk Southern Rail crash underlies importance of Chemical Logistics

Chemical logistics is once again demonstrating how dangerous it can be. The most recent incident is that of a train carry a consignment of bulk chemicals which derailed and caught-fire on February 3rd in the town of Palestine, Ohio in the US.

The train was run by Norfolk Southern and made-up of chemical tank-cars carrying a mix of hazardous chemicals including isobutylene, butyl acrylate, hydrogen chloride and vinyl chloride. The fire seems to have been fueled by a number of these chemicals. Norfolk Southern had to drain a number of the tank-cars of the vinyl chloride which was judged to be a particular hazard.

Despite this, the Environmental Protection Agency said that there had been a release of a number of chemicals, and that residents of Palestine had to evacuate their homes due to fear of gaseous toxins. The Agency also described a “contaminant plume” moving down the Ohio river due to liquids from the tankers washing into the local watercourses. Apparently both the threat of the air and river pollution has passed and the people of Palestine have returned to their homes.

The issue of the toxic chemical spill has become politicised, with the residents distrustful of Norfolk Southern’s assurances over the safety of the crash-site and its environs.
It is unclear why the train carrying the chemicals crashed. It is also unclear why the crash caused such a severe fire. Norfolk Southern has handed over the investigation of the incident to the National Surface Transportation Board, which in-turn has stated that its “investigators have identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment. Surveillance video from a resident showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.”

In keeping with the trend for continually improving safety in chemical logistics, the number of chemical and hazardous cargo related incidents on US rail has been steadily falling. Indeed, numbers published by the Federal Railroad Administration show that derailments in general have fallen gradually but steadily over the past ten years. However, incidents around chemical logistics remain a significant problem. Extreme events such as the explosion of tank containers at the port Tianjin or the explosion of Ammonium Nitrate in Beirut are not so common, however even the best regulated location can suffer significant problems such as the fire at the Rhine logistics terminal at BASF Ludwigshafen in 2016 which killed two people.

Chemicals are a leading category of cargo for US rail and their management can only be regarded as an important risk that has to be managed by the rail companies. This applies in shipping, rail, airfreight and warehousing as well.

Author: Thomas Cullen

Source: Ti Insights

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