Author Archive

Quebec Oil Train Disaster – It Could Happen in Your Town

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

The train explosion involving a 73-car crude oil unit train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6 serves as a sobering example of what can happen in your town.

The train’s oil was being transported from the Bakken Oil Region in North Dakota to New Brunswick to be refined. The incident occurred just 10 miles from the Maine border.

Rail shipments of crude oil are on the increase because of limited pipeline capacity in the Bakken region and in Canada. Unit trains carrying crude oil are traversing urban areas across the United States and Canada because our cities were connected years ago by railroads. In some cases, unit trains are blocking off entire portions of some urban areas because they can only unload so many cars at a time. (more…)

NC Rail Hazmat Incident Could Have Been in Your Backyard

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Author: David Willauer, Transportation Manager, IEM

It is still not known why nine rail cars in a 109-car train derailed from the CSX tracks in downtown Bladensboro, NC on this past weekend. Four of the derailed cars were listed as containing hazardous materials, and one of them was full of anhydrous ammonia (NH3), a toxic inhalation hazard.[1] This dense gas, when released, is heavier than air, and can seep into the ground. Emergency responders evacuated 300 people to an elementary school shelter.

We modeled this incident using data from that day’s weather and determined that 518 people lived in the “red zone” (see map below) downwind of the incident and could have potentially been impacted if that rail tank car of NH3 was compromised.

Plume model illustrates “red zone” and downwind areas to be evacuated if necessary.

Plume model illustrates “red zone” and downwind areas to be evacuated if necessary.

Late last year we described another hazmat rail incident in Paulsboro, NJ involving vinyl chloride spilling into a tributary of the Delaware River (NJ Train Derailment Begs Us to Ask: Do You Know What Is Transported Through Your Back Yard?). These incidents serve as an important reminder to emergency managers to learn what is being transported “through their backyard” and to work with freight railroads to learn about the challenges surrounding hazmat rail incidents.  Since railroads connect urban areas across the county, hazmat rail incidents can affect populated areas. Often railroad incidents occur in remote areas or areas not served by highways and pose unique challenges for the response and clean up.

North Carolina ranks third in the nation for chemical production.[2]  Anhydrous ammonia is one of the top hazardous chemicals transported in North Carolina, used primarily in the production of fertilizers.[3]

IEM helps emergency managers identify the most hazardous chemicals stored in, or transported to, their counties to be prepared in the event of one of these low-probability/high consequence incidents.


[1] Fayetteville Observer, Feb 3, 2013.
[2] American Chemistry Council, 2012.
[3] North Carolina Regional Hazardous Materials Study Series, NCEM 2009-2013.

Paulsboro Train Derailment Begs Us to Ask: Do You Know What Is Transported Through Your Back Yard?

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

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.


Chemical Economic Benefits Have Inherent Chemical Transportation Risks

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Author:  David O. Willauer, IEM Transportation & Geospatial Technologies

This week’s Hazmat incident involving a crash between an isobutene tanker and another motor carrier is a reminder of risks involved with daily chemical transportation. Isobutylene (synonym for isobutene) when blended with gasoline is used to make high octane aviation gasoline blends. First responders and emergency managers should be commended for their efforts to close the interstate quickly to avoid providing this highly flammable chemical a chance to find a source to ignite. While the primary hazard is flammability, this chemical also presents toxicity risks.

Crashes involving large trucks carrying hazardous materials are relatively rare. Less than 10 percent of truck shipments include Hazmat as all or part of the cargo load. Less than 5 percent of large truck crashes involve trucks carrying Hazmat. While most motor carrier crashes are rare, fuel tanker crashes represent most of the incidents. A report to FMCSA found that Class 3 Hazmat (flammable liquids) accounted for 64 percent of hazmat crashes where cargo was released during the crash. (more…)

Ohio Train Derailment and Ethanol Explosion Illustrates Importance of Planning for Ethanol HazMat Incidents

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division, IEM

This week’s Ohio railcar derailment and subsequent ethanol explosion in Ohio is another reminder that ethanol transport poses unique risks for firefighters. Unlike petroleum fires, ethanol fires require special alcohol-resistant foam, or AT-AFFF, to extinguish. However, AT-AFFF foam is still something many fire departments simply do not have on hand. But that is changing. Ethanol is now the number one HAZMAT commodity shipped by rail in the United States and the number of railcars shipping ethanol annually continues to rise.

Last October we saw firsthand how ethanol plants are also helping local fire companies with ethanol fires. Two ethanol plants provided fire-fighting foam to crews battling a major ethanol blaze that broke out in the early hours of October 7, 2011, just outside Tiskilwa in rural northwest Illinois after a train derailed there and prompted the evacuation of the town’s 745 residents. (more…)

Enrst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, US Airways Flight 1549 and 2011 Gold Cup: a Triple Celebration in the Queen City

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division, IEM

Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the YearEarlier this month I was on my way to the Queen City (Charlotte, NC) to celebrate the accomplishments of our company’s founder and CEO, Madhu Beriwal, a finalist in the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards for the Carolinas region. Another 15 of my colleagues and IEM partners were also converging on North Carolina’s largest city to join in the festivities. It turned out the Ernst & Young award ceremony was not the only celebration in the Queen City. US Airways Flight 1549 was on its last journey from the dramatic landing in the Hudson River to its final destination on display at Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport.

2011 Gold Cup: Cuba vs Mexico

Mexico's Javier Hernanadez kicks the ball past Cuba goalkeeper Odelin Molina for the team's fifth goal.

Nearby, fans from Cuba and Mexico were flocking to the Bank of America Stadium to cheer on their respective teams battling for soccer’s coveted 2011 Gold Cup. And 23 distinguished entrepreneurs from around the Carolinas were attending the prestigious Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award Ceremony at the Westin Hotel. This group of outstanding entrepreneurs from the Carolinas region was selected by an independent judging panel made up of previous winners of the award, leading CEOs, private capital investors and other regional business leaders. (more…)

Ethanol: A Growing Market with New Firefighting Challenges

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division, IEM

Ethanol, also known as “grain alcohol” and derived primarily from a corn fermentation process, is being embraced by federal and state governments through numerous subsidies as a viable bio-fuel. Today, ethanol joins biodiesel in a growing demand for reduced emissions nationwide, resulting in increased ethanol production, distribution and transportation. One consequence of increasing ethanol blends is that the volume of bulk ethanol transported, handled and stored continues to increase, creating new risks and challenges for firefighters worldwide.

The impetus for this and previous blogs (see Ethanol, The New Hazmat; and Emerging Ethanol Regulations) was concerns from county officials regarding increasing ethanol shipments and the cost of stockpiling alcohol resistant firefighting foam (one example is AR-AFFF). This is a local response to a national issue: which counties need the most foam, where should we put it and how are we going to pay for it?

As part of a statewide regional hazardous materials study, IEM is helping officials and emergency responders in one state answer these questions in addition to figuring out what other chemicals are being transported through their backyard.

Rail providers are also getting into the act, as bulk ethanol is now the #1 commodity for some Class I railroads. To help local emergency responders, railroads are positioning AR-AFFF Trailers at strategic locations throughout their railroad system to be ready in the event of unforeseen ethanol fire incidents.

Another good example of an ethanol public/private partnership includes an example where multiple petroleum companies have joined forces  to ensure requirements for sufficient supplies of alcohol-resistant foam were written into the local ordinance. In this example, the petroleum companies, not the municipality, helped pay for foam and the foam trailers from which the foam would be deployed. (more…)

Chemical Company Safety and Security Mandates with Feds on All Sides

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division, IEM

In a country with many regulatory measures, chemical companies face federal mandates from all sides. Such mandates include operational safety, increased security measures, emergency preparedness and reporting. Some of these mandates from different federal agencies are in conflict with one another. Every federal law related to hazardous materials has its own unique definition.  Common terms are hazardous materials (DOT and OSHA), hazardous substance (CERCLA), listed chemical (TRI and RMP) and listed and characteristic wastes (RCRA).


Emerging Ethanol Regulations

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division, IEM

In my previous blog post (Ethanol: The New HazMat?), it was inaccurate to suggest that ethanol is a completely unregulated chemical. While ethanol is not regulated under the EPA Risk Management Program (RMP) or Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) when used as a fuel (like gasoline), it is still regulated under the EPA “General Duty Clause,” and it is subject to other regulations.

HazMat is short for “hazardous material” which is a term used by the Department of Transportation (DOT) for anything that would be placarded for transport or has a UN/NA number. This also applies to chemicals required by the Occupation Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) to have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) when it applies to an employer.  Ethanol has a UN number of 1170 and is placarded by the DOT for flammability. It is also listed under the National Fire Protection Act (NFPA) with a rating of health (2), fire (3), and reactivity (0) on a scale of 0-4 with 4 being the worst health hazard. Finally, OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) program does establish a 10,000 lb threshold for flammable liquids and gases as defined in 1910.1200(c) of their standard. (more…)

Ethanol: The New HAZMAT?

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division, IEM

Is ethanol considered HazMat? This question continues to be debated as we use increasing amounts of this corn-based product to supplement our nation’s fuel supply. Ethanol is not a regulated chemical. Unlike MTBE, ethanol reportedly does not pollute ground water.

However, ask a firefighter about ethanol and you will get a different answer.  Whether blended with gasoline or not, ethanol is highly flammable and corrosive.

Ethanol is an alcohol-based organic com­pound produced chemically by ethylene conversion (a patented process) or through fermentation of sugars using yeasts. Ethanol (C2H5OH) is flammable, colorless, and odorless. Today we are blending ethanol and gasoline to produce E85 (85% ethanol) or E10 (10% ethanol). E85 requires modifications to engines whereas E10 does not. (more…)