Recent derailments raise questions about Wichita’s vulnerability to rail disaster

More than half of the residents of Sedgwick County are vulnerable to being exposed to hazardous chemicals in the event of a train derailment – and chances are few of them realize it.

Sedgwick County Emergency Management recommends that all residences and businesses within a half-mile of a railroad line have evacuation and shelter-in-place plans in the event of a derailment involving flammable or hazardous materials.

That amounts to 60 percent of the county’s population – or about 300,000 people, said Rick Shellenbarger, a planner with the emergency management department.

“So many people are affected,” Shellenbarger said.

Yet despite efforts to get the word out, many residents are likely unaware of their vulnerability. The number of rail cars carrying hazardous materials through Wichita on a daily basis has quadrupled in the past seven years to more than 325 a day.

Recent derailments in Hays and the Canadian province of Quebec show preparation should be more than theoretical.

A train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6, and exploded, triggering a massive blaze that engulfed much of the city’s downtown. Search crews have found the remains of 38 people, with another 12 missing and presumed dead.

A Union Pacific train collided with an unoccupied stationary train in Hays last Tuesday, triggering a fire and the evacuation of 16 residents. The rolling train was pulling 79 cars – including 20 carrying ethanol – but the fire was limited to three engines between the two trains. No injuries were reported.

“The incident in Quebec led to a number of calls and legitimate concerns,” said Joe Faust, a spokesman for the BNSF Railroad.

Making a plan

Shellenbarger said residents within a half-mile of a rail line should have various gathering spots designated in their evacuation plans.

“There should be one local, one that may be across town and one that may be farther than that,” he said.

Where displaced families can meet will be determined by how large the evacuation zone is for a given derailment, he said.

“A lot of factors come into play,” Shellenbarger said. “As long as you evacuate away from that area at least a mile, you should be fine.”

Shelter-in-place plans actually mirror “tornado kits,” he said. That means having nonperishable food and water for three days, plus any necessary medications.

Residents should choose an interior room or bathroom and seal windows, doors and vents with plastic sheets and duct tape. Wet towels should be placed under doors. Any device that draws outside air into the house should be shut off.

The last significant derailment in the Wichita metropolitan area occurred near Mulvane on Aug. 30, 2001. Three engines and 10 extra-long flat cars – about a third of the train – derailed when someone operating an excavator accidentally left the bucket extended out over the tracks.

Seventy-two containers were spilled and several rail cars caught fire, officials for the railroad said at the time.

Among the chemicals carried by the train were carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sodium hydroxide, more than 1,350 pounds of perfume products and more than 22 tons of white asbestos, Shellenbarger said.

Residents within one mile of the derailment were evacuated as a precaution.

Shellenbarger said authorities were “fortunate” that the derailment occurred between Mulvane and Derby and not in a more densely populated area.

Traffic increasing

The number of rail cars carrying hazardous chemicals through Wichita has jumped in recent years.

Statistics provided by the emergency management department indicate about 77 rail cars carrying hazardous materials passed through the downtown area on a daily basis in 2005. By 2009, the last year for which figures are available, that number had more than tripled to 282 each day.

Officials estimate that total climbed by about another 20 percent, to more than 325, by last year.

Trains passing through Wichita are routinely longer – and faster-moving – than they were 20 to 25 years ago, Faust said.

That puts more stress on rail lines. Railroads have responded by increasing their maintenance of the tracks in the Wichita area, Wichita Deputy Fire Chief Tammy Snow said in an e-mail response to questions.

Lines considered “degraded” in the Wichita area have been repaired, Shellenbarger said. One potentially worrisome line, along K-15 from Wichita to Derby and Mulvane, is among those that have been improved.

“That track had originally been uneven,” he said. “They went ahead and straightened the track. Obviously, straight tracks make for less rocking of the rail cars and you can increase the speeds on those lines.”

Rail lines in the county are rated to handle speeds of nearly 120 miles an hour, Shellenbarger said, but there’s a maximum speed limit of 50 through cities or populated areas.

Training vital

The Wichita Fire Department is a member of the Hazardous Materials Response Team, along with the Sedgwick County Fire Department and Wichita health department officials. The team works with industries to mitigate hazardous materials incidents in the Wichita and Sedgwick County area, Snow said.

“We participate on a regular basis in table-top exercises and hands-on training with the rail cars that transport these commodities,” she said.

The team also trains quarterly with industries, special target hazards and other agencies that would potentially respond to leaks, spills or accidents involving hazardous materials. It’s also part of a regional response team under the direction of the State Fire Marshal’s office, she said, as well as part of a partnership with the Civil Support Team, which is composed of members of the military under the direction of the governor’s office.

The importance of that training and planning can’t be overstated, Hays Fire Chief Gary Brown said. Just five days before the derailment and large fire in an industrial section of Hays, he said, local authorities held a tabletop exercise on how they would handle a major derailment at that exact intersection.

“You can’t figure out the plan when something happens,” Brown said. “You have to have a plan in advance … if you don’t have any plans in place and you’re running things by the seat of your pants, things tend not to go well.

“The difference between a good fire department and a bad fire department is the good fire department can get the confusion organized faster than the bad fire department.”

Contributing: Associated Press and Canadian Press