Poisonous Cargo: HAZMAT Transportation via US Railways


By Mr. Frank Rando, CBRNE Protective & Biomedical Countermeasures SME, University of Arizona and Ms. Dee Ruelas, Clinical Specialist in COVID-19 testing and vaccination services, USA

Chemical time bombs on wheels 

On 6 January, 2005 at 2:39 a.m., a northbound Norfolk Southern Railway Company freight train (NS train 192), while traveling at approximately 47 mph through Graniteville, South Carolina, encountered a defective switch that diverted the train from the main track onto an industry track, where it collided with an unoccupied parked train (NS train P22). The collision derailed both locomotives and 16 of the 42 freight cars of train 192, as well as the locomotive and one of the two cars of train P22. 

Among the derailed cars from train 192 were three tank cars containing chlorine, a ubiquitous toxic industrial chemical (TIC) and chemical warfare agent (CWA), which is a potent irritant gas capable of causing severe pulmonary injury. 

When train 192 struck P22, the ninth car from 192, containing 90 tons of chlorine was punctured during the derailment and released chlorine gas.

The vapor cloud extended at least 2,500 feet to the north,1,000 feet to the west.

One car was breached, releasing 60 tons of poisonous liquefied chlorine gas. The train engineer and eight other people died because of chlorine gas inhalation.

Most recently, on 3 February,2023, a Norfolk Southern Railway Company freight train hauling vinyl chloride, a known chemical carcinogen and potent irritant as well as several other TICs, derailed in the rural community of East Palestine, Ohio, very near to several residences and businesses. This event has captured much national and international attention. 

The derailment resulted in the release of TICs into the environment and a major chemical fire and was caused by an aged braking system that dates to American Civil War days.

What happened after

The decision by Norfolk Southern Railway to mitigate this hazardous materials event by puncturing tanks and draining the chemicals into a dug trench and then igniting the toxic brew added to this environmental disaster. 

This was done to avert a potential BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion) causing tanker high pressures and catastrophic rupture / explosion and possible chemical reactivity reactions.

In the authors’ opinions, backed by several authorities on hazardous materials (HAZMAT) management and emergency response and public health authorities, this action taken by Norfolk Southern and emergency responders was not prudent as it created a complex environmental contamination event leading to significant ecosystem damage, human health effects, costly property damage and the release of even more toxic combustion byproducts into the environment.

After an extensive evaluation process, East Palestine residents were allowed to reenter their homes in very short order and in a hasty manner without authorities fully assessing and considering re-entry risks to human health and safety. 

Many residences have been covered in toxic soot, and soil on their properties are also contaminated, which can be tracked into their homes. Many residents, and some first responders are complaining of diverse effects from exposure, such as skin rashes, nosebleeds, ocular, and respiratory symptoms.

The question of dioxins, such as TCDD, and furans being generated during the controlled combustion of vinyl chloride and other TICs and disseminated into the community environment is a pressing concern.

Days after the derailment, a US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) / Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) were on the ground and opened a clinic to assess health effects. 

This is important as there are many psychological symptoms among community residents which also need to be assessed by qualified mental health professionals.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) also stood up an office in East Palestine.

The toxic plume has impacted a tri-state area which includes Ohio, nearby Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Several local creeks and the Ohio River have received both liquid toxic chemicals and chemical fallout in the form of soot and ash. Additionally, there have been significant fish kills and wildlife that have died in the wake of the disaster.

Thousands of tons of contaminated soil from the derailment site and millions of gallons of contaminated water runoff/wastewater have been transported to off-site regulated hazardous waste disposal facilities, including an incinerator where there is significant concern for dioxin release into the atmosphere.

Chief concepts for hazmat incident management 

The three major components for any emergency response are: 

 (Utilize the mnemonic (L.I.P)

  • Life safety 
  • Incident stabilization, including all associated safety hazards eg. downed wires, anti-personnel devices 
  • Preservation of property and the environment 

The major focus is on establishing control of the incident by assuming command and isolating non-essential personnel from the “Hot Zone” by establishing an Isolation Perimeter and Hazard Control Zones (eg., Hot, Warm, Cold Zones).

Site management and control provide the foundation for the response. Responders cannot safely and effectively implement an Incident Action Plan (IAP) unless the incident and incident area are clearly identified, defined, and established for both emergency response personnel and the public. 

Approach the incident upwind, uphill, and upstream. Safe approach and positioning are critical to responder safety and health and mission success!

Safe operating procedures should strictly control and limit the number of personnel working in the Hot Zone / Exclusionary Zone (HZ/ EZ).

Most HZ operations can be accomplished with a minimum of four personnel (dependent on magnitude of incident and other factors) working for specified time periods using the Buddy System following the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Two In/Two – Out Rule.

Public Protective Actions (PPAs) need to be in effect. This is a recognized strategy used by the Incident Commander (IC) to protect the general population from the hazardous material(s) by implementing either Protection – in- Place (Shelter -in – Place), Evacuation, or Combination of Protection – in- Place and Evacuation Order.

The decision to implement any PPAs is generally determined by various factors, such as meteorological conditions, physio-chemical characteristics of hazardous material(s), topography, possibility of fire and / or explosion, and proximity to populated areas.


The U.S. and international railway transportation systems and their infrastructure are highly vulnerable to accidents, sabotage, and terrorist attack. 

Improved rail transportation safety must be an obligation of both transporters and regulatory authorities. Stringent safety standards and upgrades must have vigilant oversight and enforcement.

Concomitantly, advanced security countermeasures for rail systems and minimal transportation of extremely hazardous substances must be achieved and protected at each stage of rail transport and storage. The development of less dangerous industrial materials and product substitutions would also reduce the hazards on our railways.

About the Authors:

Mr. Frank Rando currently serves as an allied health programs educator / lead instructor and healthcare emergency preparedness/medical readiness /public health preparedness and tactical, operational – disaster medicine and homeland security Subject Matter Expert, educator , instructor and curriculum designer. He has served in instructional, guest speaker and consultative roles for DHS-FEMA, various components of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, DoD, industry, academia, health, safety and regulatory entities, emergency services organizations and healthcare.

Ms. Dee Ruelas
possesses over 35 years of dedicated professional experience in various roles in public safety/ emergency services, teaching and instruction, healthcare, environmental health and safety, emergency preparedness, community resiliency and Christian ministry. Dee was also a decorated public safety-emergency medical communications specialist for the City of Tucson Fire Department and worked for the Tucson Municipal Court, where one of her roles was serving as the Fire Prevention and General Safety Officer for the municipal courts system.

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