Author: David Willauer, Transportation Manager
Last Friday’s freight train derailment in New Jersey in which several rail tank cars of vinyl chloride ended up in a creek off the Delaware River serves as a sobering reminder to emergency managers throughout the United States: do you know what is transported through your back yard? If so, do you have a plan for responding?
Fortunately, only one rail car of vinyl chloride was ruptured, a tribute to the strength of rail tank cars. At 353,000 lbs fully loaded, a rail tank car is difficult to move, even with the right equipment. However, an incident involving vinyl chloride (VCM), a highly flammable toxic inhalation hazard, contains multiple hazards that are worth reviewing. This incident should serve as a learning experience for emergency managers and first responders.
First, in an incident involving a chemical like VCM, it is important to step back and assess the situation. While VCM is highly flammable, water can increase the formation of gas. The recommended media is alcohol resistant firefighting foam (AR-AFFF). The foam knocks down the flammable and toxic gas and slows down the vaporization.
Second, aging infrastructure is clearly a factor in this incident. There are 18 railroad systems in New Jersey operating over 983 miles of track. While freight rail operators are constantly improving their systems, they cannot always keep up with the maintenance of tracks, trestles and bridges. This bridge was constructed in 1874. Like many railroad bridges in this country, they need attention.
Finally, environmental concerns in this event are not significant as VCM is not a persistent material in the environment and it does not bio-accumulate. VCM has an environmental half-life of 23 hours in soil and water. In air it rapidly degrades with sunlight and disperses into the atmosphere.
This incident underscores the importance of knowing what’s going through your back yard, preplanning so you know how to deal with such incidents, making good assessments and developing mitigation and response plans.