Railroad hosts hazmat training for first responders

Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad hosted a hazardous materials training for first responders at the Aberdeen Rotary Log Pavilion Thursday, giving an overview of what to do and who to call if disaster strikes on local rail lines.

It’s essentially the same training most agencies go through every year, but there was at least one nod to the crude-by-rail derailment and spill in Quebec earlier: An open letter from PS&P president Billy Eason, now also a vice-president for the railroad’s new owner, Genesee & Wyoming.

“Dear Neighbors: While the Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad has operated safely in Grays Harbor County for many years, we realize that the recent tragedy in Quebec has brought the issue of railroad safety to the top of people’s minds,” he wrote. He continued on to outline the railroad’s safety record and history.

First responders said they weren’t specifically concerned about crude-by-rail proposals from Westway Terminals, Imperium Renewables and U.S. Development that could bring as much as 2.4 billion gallons of oil per year over Grays Harbor rails if all three projects are approved as proposed.

“I think we have no higher concern about that than we have about the Westway Terminal products right now,” Aberdeen Police Department Chief Bob Torgerson said Friday. Westway currently stores only methanol at its existing facility at the Port of Grays Harbor.

“The reality is there’s already a high amount of hazardous materials that travel the railroads and highways every day,” Hoquiam Police Chief Jeff Myers said.

“If there is a major event, the local response will be to isolate and make the calls, and it will be a state and federal response,” Aberdeen Fire Department Chief Tom Hubbard said.

Hubbard said the department reviews hazmat training at least annually, but “It’s really nice to review.”

“I clearly think the safety precautions that were described (Thursday) and the response we would be receiving from the railroad for any hazmat situation is very positive,” Torgerson said. “We thought that was an outstanding training put on by the railroad and we appreciate their efforts to keep us informed and trained.”

Myers attended with his department’s patrol supervisors.

“It’s just one more tool in the tool box,” he said.

The Washington State Patrol would be primarily in command of a hazmat spill, coordinating with local agencies and rail officials. The National Resource Corporation is the local hazmat contractor for PS&P, and maintains a vessel in Grays Harbor with oil spill response equipment and 10 employees on standby in the area at any given time. Their maximum time for a full response is two hours.

Justin Piper, hazardous materials manager for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, gave a presentation on identifying which hazardous materials might be in which rail car, and how to set up a response. He also gave a tour of an engine and tank car parked on the rail nearby.

He noted that railroads are required by federal law to transport anything that’s properly prepared at a fair market price.

“We don’t have a say over what we transport. Unlike other methods of transportation, highway transportation or marine transportation, we cannot reject loads because we don’t want to haul them. As long as a shipper properly prepares and ships the material, we have to haul it to its destination,” he said.

Piper said five years ago, BNSF handled fewer than 10,000 carloads of crude oil per year.

Last year, that number was up to 360,000.

“We’ll see that again this year. That is a commodity that’s increasing,” he said.

That increase is part of what’s drawing shipping proposals to Grays Harbor. Westway Vice-President Robbie Johnson attended Thursday’s training.

“There’s just a huge demand for crude oil to get to deep water,” he said.

To the people concerned about oil passing through their towns, Johnson said, “Safety is our No. 1 priority. Our facilities are built to extremely high standards. We feel like we’re part of the communities we’re in and we want to be part of the community.”

Don Seil, PS&P general manager, struck a similar note.

“There’s really no safety concern bigger than the public’s safety and the safety of our employees. Our goal is to be the safest railroad,” he said.

On concerns about rail infrastructure in the area, Seil said, “The bridges have been inspected by the Federal Rail Administration and they have been inspected by our rail inspectors. … They are within the standards set by the federal government.”

The railroad is also talking with the City of Aberdeen about how to make traffic at railroad crossings more efficient.

“We want to be good partners with the city. So we’ll do everything we can to maintain the crossings to the highest standard,” he said. “If we can do things better and safer, we want to be part of that.”