Everyone appreciates what emergency responders do, but there is also a time for review and analysis to prevent the reoccurrence of errors, or an opportunity to improve response. I personally was in Graniteville January 5 – 12, 2005. I base my analysis on local press accounts and my own personal observations.
About the Author
- Emergency responders from the local volunteer fire department responded to the train crash and subsequent chlorine release without first donning personal protective gear. This severely hampered and compromised their response. Some wound up with blisters on their lungs. This volunteer fire department had HAZMAT training and equipment due to the proximity if the Savannah River Nuclear Site. One would think that the scenario of a train derailment involving hazardous materials such as chlorine would have been part of their training, as well as something the Aiken County LEPC would have contemplated and prepared for in preparing and updating its EPCRA Section 303 emergency plan. Neither law enforcement personnel nor emergency responders seemed trained/drilled/prepared for this scenario.
- Civilians were mostly on their own when it came to evacuating. There were true accounts of heroism and good Samaritans. Workers at the Avondale Mills plant worked together to make sure they got away. Some trying to flee had difficulty starting their cars and trucks as the chlorine worked with the humidity in the air on ignitions. Cell phones also did not always work for the same reason.
- The community had a rare resource, an emergency telephone ring-down system, but it was not activated for hours after the incident, then told people to shelter-in-place at first, when it should have told many to evacuate. Later, it was used to tell people to evacuate.
- The railroad did not make the call to the National Response Center required by CERCLA 103 until over an hour and fifteen minutes after the release of chlorine. [According to the NRC report, the incident occurred on 06-JAN-05 at 02:40 local time. *Report taken by: MST3 CREWS at 03:58 on 06-JAN-05] It is unknown what effect this had on the actual response, or if the delay exacerbated the emergency response issues, but the system set up by federal law was not properly utilized. CERCLA requires an immediate phone call. Under the EPA penalty policy, penalties begin after a 15-minute delay, and the maximum penalty is assessed after one hour. The notifications from the NRC to the various state and federal emergency response agencies came after at least a fifteen-minute delay.
- EPA set up a chlorine monitor at the crash site that maxed out at 1.5 ppm. Although the incident response lasted for several days, a better monitor that would show actual levels of chlorine in the ambient air was not used. It would have served the immediate community of Graniteville, as well as the nearby community and county seat of Aiken, to have had the information and technical data about maximum concentrations of chlorine at the site and a variety of off-site locations. Again, one wonders why the local volunteer fire department did not have this type of monitor, as an incident such as a local train derailment involving chlorine or other HAZMAT would be a foreseeable contingency.
- The ALOHA modeling program distributed by EPA (for use by responders and emergency planners in modeling chemical spills) seems to have not worked very well in modeling this particular chlorine spill. The official account available in the press was that only one railcar was breached and leaking, but according to an ALOHA model, it would have been expected to empty rather quickly, certainly within hours. The report later was that much of the chlorine in the breached railcar did not leak into the atmosphere, and eventually was neutralized and off-loaded. There was some confusion about how many of the rail cars of chlorine were breached. Utilizing this ALOHA modeling, responders could have made an educated guess about just how far away adverse effects of the chlorine might have been felt, as well as the infiltration of dwellings.
- The head of the local volunteer fire department and designated incident commander was also an employee of the railroad. It is unclear whether this had an effect on the release of information to the press and the public about the incident. I certainly got the impression that the Norfolk Southern Railroad was in control of the command center and the flow of information. All press statements and information seemed to be carefully controlled to minimize embarrassment to the company. Questioning would be cut off whenever the press asked hard questions of the rail company, at least when I was present. I was able to find out the cause of the incident almost immediately upon arrival at Breezy Hill (adjacent to Graniteville) on the morning of the 6th of January. I learned that the rail crew that parked a locomotive and two cars on the side rail by the Avondale Mills facility had not switched the diversion switch back and had gone home hours before the oncoming train with the chlorine railcars arrived. The NTSB announced some of the information a few days later, and much later announced that the crew had not made the switch back.
- As I wandered the incident command center area the day after the crash, I noticed a very distressed young black woman who seemed to be ignored by the various officials and staff present at the area. I asked her and found out that she was trying to locate information about her father, Willie Tyler, and that she had not been able to get any kind of answer from hospitals or anyone. I convinced a sheriff’s deputy to assist her, and she was referred to a Red Cross center some miles away. Later, Willie Tyler was found dead at the Avondale Mills plant. He was the ninth victim. It seems wrong that he was known to be missing and yet no one or official had contacted his family. It also seems wrong that she could not find out this vital information easily.
- The area of evacuation was likely not sufficient. I spoke with a woman who lived about 2.5 miles downwind from the rail crash site who had not ever been evacuated by emergency responders. She had heard the crash but thought it was thunder. She awoke the morning of the crash feeling weak, and noticed what she described as “a strange fog” outside. She learned about the disaster on television. When her husband came home later that day, they left their home and went further away to some relatives, but the chlorine fumes came there also, so they went back home. Considering that the potential off-site consequence of a catastrophic release of chlorine from a rail car can be up to 14 miles away, according to EPA, it appears that the emergency response and evacuation should have looked further into the area outside the IDLH (10ppm for Chlorine), and should have conducted air monitoring periodically throughout the areas downwind. This appears to be a common problem going back to the mindset of the emergency response community using ALOHA. The area of IDLH (Immediate Danger to Life and Health) gets much attention, but the levels of chlorine in the ambient air outside an IDLH can still be at harmful levels, certainly with chronic exposure. Even the OSHA standard for workplace exposure is 0.5 ppm, TWA. People outside the designated IDLH should have been warned to avoid exposure and what symptoms might indicate an adverse effect.
- Some of the medical community, despite the rail disaster, seems to have ignored the obvious. This aforementioned woman did not go to an emergency room until Sunday the 9th of January, four days after the incident, because she did not get any better. There was no notification to her and others about potential health effects to watch out for. The hospital, unfortunately, diagnosed her with pneumonia and merely gave her antibiotics, which did not help at all. She saw her primary care physician on Tuesday, the 11th of January, who realized her chlorine exposure, and prescribed something to ease the inflammation of her lungs and allow her to breathe easier.
- It is always helpful when the responsible party steps up to the plate to assist in relieving the problems caused by a chemical accident. However, although Norfolk Southern Railroad set up a relief center to give people checks to cover motel and food expenses, but people had to wait hours to process paperwork and get these checks. It would have been better if this had been expedited with more staffing and resources, and it would have also looked better for the railroad company if it had not put releases for people to sign on these checks. (A court action soon ruled that these releases were invalid.)
- It is unbelievable and appalling that the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected Gov. Mark Sanford's request for federal disaster relief in the wake of the Jan. 6 train accident and chlorine gas spill that killed nine and temporarily displaced thousands in Graniteville. A Feb. 9 letter from FEMA Under Secretary Michael Brown told Sanford the agency didn't think the Graniteville derailment and chemical spill warranted an emergency declaration.
- The hazardous materials contents of the railcars traveling through Graniteville or anywhere need not be a mystery. OREIS is a software tool that provides emergency responders, emergency planners, on-scene fire, police and EMS responders with vital information for dealing with rescue, response and counter-terrorism operations on or around railroads and highways, including those involving hazardous materials. The software provides responders with real-time information about the chemical contents of railcars and trucks that have been involved in an incident, schematics for passenger railroads and a host of other life and timesaving features for emergency responders. The concept was born in 1995 in Houston, Texas and sprang from a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) initiative to provide hazardous materials information to emergency responders.