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Ohio train derailment has Corpus Christi leaders evaluating its disaster plan

A Norfolk Southern train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, with 20 of the 150 railcars carrying some type of hazardous material.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — It’s been more than a month since a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in Ohio, an incident which grabbed national attention -- but also the attention of Corpus Christi city leaders.

The incident spawned health concerns among the people living in the area, with people concerned about the safety of the area's air and water.

Here in Corpus Christi, the accident prompted city manager Peter Zanoni and others to ask what procedures we have in place should we ever be faced with a similar emergency.

It was the first topic at Tuesday's city council meeting.

“We watched that carefully, and as a result of that, we checked to see what our own protocols are here in Corpus Christi and Nueces county with respect to our trains,” he said.

In last moneth's incident, a Norfolk Southern train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3. Twenty of the 150 railcars were carrying some type of hazardous material.

Eleven of those cars ran off the tracks in the accident, causing a days-long fire. The Environmental Protection Agency said cleanup of the site will likely take about three more months.

Train derailments that result in situations as severe as the one in Ohio don't happen that often, but they do happen nonetheless. 

The United States saw 1,734 train derailments last year – 88 more than the year before, states a report from the Federal Railway Association.

Union Pacific is the rail system that primarily serves Nueces county. Zanoni said that he and others have met twice with railroad officials to make sure that we have a strong plan in place, should we need it.

Interim Corpus Christi Fire Department Chief Richie Quintero also has been a part of the process.

“The rail system, as you know, is very important to the economy and the infrastructure of the United States," he said. "Approximately 30 percent of all exports move through the rail system. It competes highly with trucking and shipping and so forth.”

In fact, with more products being moved, more cars are being added to trains, making them longer and increasing the possibility of a larger derailment, such as the one that happened in Ohio.

Quintero said that the first 30 minutes of any such accident are critical, and that in that time, they have three priorities:

  • First, to alert the community, not only through the Reverse Alert system and the media, but also by going door-to-door, if necessary, in any neighborhood that could be affected.
  • Second, to determine the level of the threat. Is it an incident, an emergency or a crisis? Quintero said they would bring in a number of appropriate agencies to answer that question, including our own public heath department, the TCEQ, and the owners of the product inside any derailed car. Then, based on that determination; 
  • the third job is to let the community know whether they should shelter in place or evacuate.

Both Zanoni and Quintero noted that because information is quickly available online, it would only take minutes to know exactly what was in each car and how it might react if it were to spill or come into contact with the air. 

That information could then be used to deal with the problem more quickly.

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