BELLE, WV (WOWK) — Families living in East Palestine, Ohio, are still begging for answers after a fiery train derailment in February 2023. The incident has people in West Virginia keeping an eye on the tracks as they watch cars carrying dangerous chemicals go by their homes.
Belle resident Terry Tinsley has lived along the tracks in eastern Kanawha County for 75 years. He doesn’t miss much, including the activity on the rails.
“Just chemical cars and a lot of coal cars; everything they load at DuPont. Sometimes they bring it up here and store it and then they’ll take it back out,” Tinsley said.
The facility he is referring to is now called Chemours. It is one of many similar facilities in the so-called “Chemical Valley”.
“Of course, they probably haul some dangerous stuff down this way, DuPont and stuff, but luckily we hadn’t had anything,” Tinsley said, before turning his attention to the disaster in East Palestine. “But down there, I don’t think they’ll ever get out of that mess.”
A train operated by Norfolk Southern was carrying toxic chemicals when it derailed. Authorities eventually called for an evacuation and executed a controlled release of toxic fumes to keep some of the cars involved from exploding. The situation is still prompting fear and frustration in the East Palestine community.
“When someone is telling you that everything is ok but you are experiencing health issues, there is a problem,” said East Palestine resident Jami Cozza.
Cozza lived close to the derailment site. She took her story and her questions all the way to Capitol Hill last month.
“You know I can only trust in myself and my instincts and what I see around me,” she said.
Even though Cozza’s neighborhood isn’t particularly close to most communities in West Virginia, the story of what is going on there hits close to home. Since the incident in East Palestine, the West Virginia Public Service Commission has received more calls from the public asking questions about what is going on, on the state’s railroads.
“We haul everything from chemicals to cornflakes. Anything in the world you might think of usually is shipped by rail and a lot of it comes through here,” said John Perry, Manager of the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s Railroad Safety Section.
Perry is one of 10 inspectors responsible for overseeing the safety of 4,000 miles of railway in the state. Shortly after the derailment in East Palestine, there was a derailment involving a coal train in the Sandstone area of Summers County. That incident injured 3 crew members and spilled diesel fuel and oil.
Back in 2015, a derailment in Boomer attracted national attention after it caught a home on fire, prompted evacuations, dumped crude oil into the river and left many residents to rely on bottled water.
Perry said while most of the traffic on the state’s rails is coal there are also different types of chemicals.
“There is a tremendous chemical business here in the Kanawha Valley. So obviously they ship a lot of chemicals out and they get product in to make those chemicals with,” he said.
According to the Public Service Commission’s 2022 Summary, last year they inspected 26,770 cars and locomotives, identifying 1,435 defective rail cars. They also inspected 1,917 miles of track and found 684 defective track conditions. The Commission has a comprehensive Hazardous Materials Inspection program that conducted 48 inspections and cited 22 defective conditions and one violation in 2022.
But there were fewer inspections in some areas compared to the Summary Report available for 2021. Year to year the number of rail cars and locomotives inspected was down 2,043. The Hazardous Materials Inspection was down by 120.
The Railroad Safety Section is currently short one inspector and is losing two more soon. One will be retiring and the other is leaving because of disability. A spokesperson for the Public Service Commission said they expect to fill those spots fairly easily, getting them back to a full staff.
“We inspect every aspect of the railroad,” Perry said. “We do the same thing as the Federal Railroad Administration does. In fact we are all certified through the Federal Railroad Administration and we are out every day making the railroads as safe as they can be both for the public and the folks that work on the railroad.”
People living along the tracks in West Virginia aren’t the only ones keeping an eye on the response in East Palestine.
“We are always going back over in our minds, doing the what if’s, what if that did happen here, who would I reach out to and is that person still there or have they retired or moved on. So, it probably is a good exercise to look at those and just go through that mental checklist we have of steps that we would take,” said Matthew Blackwood, Deputy Director WV Emergency Management Division.
He said when it comes to a response to a train derailement that may involve hazardous materials they plan, train and then do exercises that put both the planning and the training into practice.
“We actually can communicate with the company,” Blackwood said. “If it is CSX or Norfolk Southern or some of the other major transportation companies and they can tell us what is in the cars. They can tell us how many cars back a certain substance is so that we do have some idea when the first responders are getting there.”
He said the chemical companies in the area often work hand in hand with emergency teams.
“It usually does provide us an opportunity to get access to some additional training,” Blackwood said. “They are very supportive of that. They know that they need to get their products to their facilities and to their end-user safely. So, I think there is a good working relationship between industry and first responders.”
13 News asked John Perry at the Public Service Commission if there was an easy way for people in West Virginia to know exactly what is traveling through their communities on any given day.
“I had a gentleman question me in Martinsburg a month ago about the chemicals on the trains and why we can’t stop the trains and check what chemicals are on the trains before they come through the state,” Perry recalled. “My answer to him was, ‘Are you going to stop all of the trucks on the interstate? They are hauling the exact same stuff it is just in a bigger tank.’ It is different you know; every train is going to be different.”
Many people like Terry Tinsley have accepted that hazardous chemicals have been and will continue to go by their front door. They just hope that safety measures, inspections and training will keep the worst-case scenario from becoming a reality.
“It goes by. There’s nothing I can do about it. People are working. As long as it doesn’t spill I’ll be alright,” Tinsley said.
During the most recent regular session of the West Virginia Legislature, lawmakers introduced a bill intended to strengthen the state’s enforcement authority over railroads. House Bill 3059 received support initially but ultimately it did not pass.
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