Each day, freight trains carry toxic and flammable material travel throughout Massachusetts – but local officials and emergency personnel don’t know what’s going through their community at any moment.
25 Investigates contacted MassDOT’s Division of Rail and Transit to see if anyone there tracked the movement of hazardous materials by train.
The agency directed us to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
An FRA spokesperson told us that it “does not monitor train movements or types of cargo… in real-time.”
The FRA said railroads aren’t required to share real-time information with anyone – even emergency personnel.
When responding to a train derailment or crash, Quincy firefighter Chris Barry said first responders must take time to identify hazardous cargo before moving in.
“We’re going to try to ascertain as much as we can from a high point, maybe even using binoculars, what the hazard is,” Barry said. “Can we see any strange colored smoke? Is it smoking at all? Does it appear to be leaking?”
Firefighters and other first responders are also trained to look at hazardous material placards on cars to identify what’s inside. The placards contain universally recognized numbers and color patterns that correspond with different gasses and chemicals.
25 INVESTIGATES SEARCHES FOR TOXIC CARGO IN OUR AREA
The search for toxic cargo took 25 Investigates to Ashland, Ayer, Braintree, Palmer, Quincy, Worcester, and Westford.
25 Investigates found train cars carrying liquid petroleum gas, propane, sodium hydroxide, lye, methanol, or wood alcohol, and fertilizer. Propane and methanol are considered highly flammable and carry the risk of explosion. Lye is corrosive and can cause chemical burns in high concentrations.
PAST HAZMAT INCIDENTS ON LOCAL RAILWAYS
Data from the federal rail incident report shows 167 cars carrying hazmat have been involved in incidents and accidents in Massachusetts in the last decade.
Over that time, 13 hazmat cars derailed or were damaged but there have been no documented leaks or spills.
Last October, a derailment in Sherborn in Middlesex County damaged five hazmat cars. In 2018 in Worcester County, five hazmat cars were damaged in a derailment in Royalston.
Other areas of the country have been less fortunate: Like East Palestine, Ohio.
On Feb. 3, 38 cars derailed in the crash that spilled tens of thousands of gallons of hazardous materials and contaminated millions of gallons of wastewater and nearly 13,000 tons of soil and solids. At least 11 cars were carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate, isobutylene, and benzene residue.
The February explosion and mass evacuation have prompted public hearings in Congress and calls to toughen regulations.
PUSH FOR TRANSPARENCY
U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Democrat for Massachusetts’ northeastern 6th Congressional District, wants to see increased transparency - including real-time tracking of hazardous cargo on trains and trucks.
Such information could provide immediate answers in the crucial first moments of a potentially deadly spill, without requiring firefighters or police to first check out the decals on train cars that say what they’re carrying.
“Trucking companies and railroads have this information,” Moulton said. “They obviously know what they’re transporting. And so just making that available to first responders through an efficient system available online is something that we’d like to see done.”
An app was created in 2014 with near real-time information about railcars carrying hazardous materials but the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board said in March that none of the emergency personnel that responded to the East Palestine crash had access to it.
25 Investigates also asked about half a dozen railroads operating in Massachusetts for details and maps about train routes of hazardous cargo through the state.
All railroads declined to provide such details.
Officials at CSX Railroad – which operates 1,345 miles of track through Massachusetts – cited security concerns as the reason they do not provide details to the public about shipments of hazardous material through communities.
“For security reasons, CSX does not provide details to the public about shipments of hazardous materials through any specific area,” Sheriee Bowman, spokesperson for CSX – which overall operates 21,000 miles of track through 26 states in the eastern United States along with the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec – said in an email.
CSX’s website does state that chemicals made up 24% of what it shipped and 10% of what it received in 2021. It reports nearly 313,800 carloads of all commodities transported in 2021.
Bowman said CSX compiles with federal law to ensure local and state emergency management agencies “have a comprehensive list of hazardous commodities transported in their communities.”
“So that first responders are prepared in the extremely rare case that a hazmat release should occur,” Bowman said.
P. Christopher Podgurski, president, and COO of Mass Coastal Railroad, said that railroads are already highly regulated and face stringent safety rules.
Federal regulations dating back to the eighties set up local emergency response committees nationwide that come up with plans to respond to releases of toxic chemicals. Transportation officials work with groups including firefighters, public health workers, police, and local elected officials on those plans.
Podgurski compared trains to buses - which carry smaller but more frequent amounts of hazardous materials on highways.
“Railroads are not required to make notice to every community that our trains travel through any more than the thousands of tractor-trailers that travel the nation’s highways,” Podgurski told 25 Investigates in an email.
Podgurski also pointed out that railroads are common carriers that are legally required to move any freight – including hazardous materials.
“As railroad transportation is regulated by the United States Transportation Board (STB), we are compelled by law to move each and every material in a safe and compliant manner,” Podgurski wrote. “Simply said, the railroads cannot refuse a move.”
Mass Coastal Railroad, based out of Plymouth County in southeastern Massachusetts, carries chemicals used to treat and disinfect drinking water supplies on a track spanning from Hyannis to Framingham.
Podgurski said the rail industry in recent years has taken efforts to reduce the movement of toxic and poisonous chemicals. “In one instance, the movement of chlorine has been displaced by the movement of bleach which is much less dangerous,” Podgurski said.
“Those of us in the transportation industry are trained to be aware of exactly what we are carrying and how to handle it under the federal guidelines,” Podgurski said. “In the instance of an accident, we are trained to make first responders immediately aware of what we have so they can take appropriate action.”
The Department of Homeland Security offers training sessions to help local responders identify and respond to hazardous materials. The railroad and chemical industries have also partnered up to offer training through their TRANSCAER program.
Bowman, the CSX spokesperson, said the company conducted 40 hazmat training events in 2022 through TRANSCAER and other outreach efforts. She said those events provided over 2,900 hours of training and reached more than 3,600 first responders, contractors, and local government officials.
‘CITIZENS ARE RELYING ON LUCK’
In Westford, former town Selectmen Don Siriani says hazmat trains come through the community a couple of times each day.
“Right behind us we have an elderly housing complex and lots of families who live right adjacent to this track,” Siriani told investigative reporter Ted Daniel.
In 2014, a train car carrying propane derailed in Westford. It happened again in 2016.
Local Westford officials have pushed for increased transparency about hazardous cargo as far back as 2014.
“The disclosure and what is required under federal law… is wholly inadequate,” Siriani said. “Right now, citizens are relying on luck rather than the law.”
In 2013, a 73-car freight train carrying Bakken crude oil rolled to downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and derailed, killing 47 people and destroying 30 buildings.
Railroads in Massachusetts are required to inspect “heavy-duty track” on a daily basis.
“Less important main lines and important branch lines will be inspected at least three times each week,” reads the state railroad safety regulations. “All other lines will be inspected at least once each week.”
25 Investigates found the regulations don’t state any explicit fines or penalties for railroads that fail to conduct such inspections.
Certain tracks – including heavy tonnage freight lines and any branch line carrying hazardous materials – must be tested for internal defects at least once a year.
25 Investigates filed a public records request for copies of those inspections.
The FRA provided 107 reports of annual mechanical inspections for internal defects.
There were 35 instances where freight car air brakes weren’t in effective operating condition. Other inspections found instances of hazardous leaks and faulty track components.
In addition, 25 Investigates found concern among local residents about the condition of tracks in their neighborhoods.
Ten miles from Westford in Ayer, 25 Investigates found a tanker car with methanol, which is toxic and highly flammable.
The section of track the methanol car travels on is not on a mainline and it appears to get little use.
But Ayer resident Charles McQuaid said he wonders how safe it is – even if only a limited number of cars travel it infrequently at slow speed.
“It’s missing two spikes here and of the two that are left, there’s one of them and there’s the other,” Charles McQuaid said as he walked along the track. “This is the condition of all the wood on the track. I can put my whole arm under it.”
“My neighbor is the closest house here and his house shakes when the train goes by,” McQuaid said.
He showed 25 Investigates videos he shot from his street of a train traveling by his house in February.
“The wheel is sheering through the track,” he said, adding: “It’s a ticking time bomb.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.
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