In this view looking west from the Frederick Road bridge over the Patapsco River, a rail bridge can be seen welcoming visitors to Ellicott City. Officials said they are as prepared as possible for a future derailment(TBM / Jason Whong)

A CSX train derailed in Ellicott City in 2012, killing two young women. That incident closed the lower entrance to Main Street for nearly a week and triggered the hiring of an environmental consultant to assess pollution damage to the Patuxent River caused by spilled coal.

Had any of the 21 derailed cars been carrying toxic chemicals, flammables, or other hazardous material, the outcome could have been just as devastating as the February derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Rail transportation is relatively safe and accidents are rare, but the Ellicott City accident is a reminder that there are no absolute guarantees against accidents. Local Office of Emergency Management officials told The Business Monthly they are as prepared as possible to deal with a hazardous derailment.

“Lessons learned from the 2012 derailment were used to help create our updated Comprehensive Emergency Response and Recovery Plan and were input into our Corrective Action Program,” said Mike Hinson, director of Howard County’s OEM. “That incident led to OEM taking steps to gain Integrated Public Alert & Warning System certification.”

Anne Arundel County is currently in the process of updating its Emergency Operations Plan.

“Conversations about what happened in East Palestine and other disasters are naturally informing this update,” said Kasey Thomas, spokesperson for Anne Arundel County’s OEM.

Local situation

CSX Transportation operates the Capital Subdivision, the primary freight rail line that runs through Anne Arundel and Howard Counties. Large through freights do not operate on the Penn Line section of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, although CSX and Norfolk Southern do operate regional service along portions of that line.

“CSX routinely provides detailed information about the cargo we carry … to state and local first-responder organizations,” said Cindy Schild, spokesperson for CSX. “We have done this voluntarily and in compliance with all federal regulations governing the transport of hazardous materials.”

Schild said CSX also provides density studies on request to familiarize first responders with the annual rank listing by volume of the hazardous materials carried through any given community and the quantities moved.

CSX did not provide details regarding the percentage of its total rail carloads that carried hazardous material through Maryland during 2022.

Its annual rank listing for that year shows flammable liquids making up the largest percentage of hazardous freight transported within or through Maryland by CSX, amounting to 30% of the total volume. Miscellaneous hazardous materials accounted for 27% of the remainder, followed by gases (23%) and corrosives (16%). Explosives, toxic and infectious substances, oxidizing substances and organic peroxides, and radioactive material each amounted to less than 2% per category.

In its annual overview of Freight Rail Data which looks at combined industry totals, the Association of American Railroads reported that 12,100 carloads carrying 1.2 million tons of chemicals moved through Maryland in 2021.

Specialized tools

First responders and OEM officials in Anne Arundel and Howard Counties have an important tool in their pockets that provides instant information about hazardous materials being transported by any individual train.

Using the AskRail mobile app available only to vetted users, they can look up the codes displayed on the side of any rail car to find out what it carries, how the product behaves, exposure considerations, and railroad contact information.

“It includes schematics for tank cars and a virtual damage assessment tool,” Schild added. “Advanced users can also request the entire CSX train consist on demand without having to contact the railroad.”

Steve Hardesty, Special Operations Battalion Chief for Howard County’s Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said 126 of the department’s Special Operations Team members have hazardous materials/weapons of mass destruction certification through the National Fire Protection Association.

Additionally, 24 hazmat technicians have attended Tank Car Specialist Training classes funded by the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Our team routinely conducts hazmat training with mutual aid partners from the region, the Maryland Department of Environment’s Emergency Response Team, and CSX,” Hardesty said.

Anne Arundel County’s first responders have similar certifications and training, and practice coordinated responses with neighboring jurisdictions.

Both counties use mass notification systems and social media to alert the public of emergencies and are prepared to send responders door to door if necessary.

Outreach efforts

The OEM organizations in Anne Arundel and Howard Counties conduct public learning sessions on an ongoing basis to help residents ensure they are prepared for emergencies.

“Our outreach includes presentations and information booths that can be tailored to community or organization needs, with focuses on business, personal, and community preparedness,” Thomas said. “We’ve also helped HOAs and apartment complexes write emergency plans.”

She and Hinson stressed that it’s important that residents ensure they can receive emergency alerts.

“Our emergency operations plan covers basic response operations for a few different scenarios, but we realize we can’t plan for every scenario,” Thomas said. “Overall, though, our counties are prepared for the most likely contingencies and emergencies that we might have to deal with.”