SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT: Dangerous Cargo, Part 1

By: Ryan Duffy
By: Ryan Duffy

What exactly is on those trains passing through our cities and neighborhoods every day? That’s an important question, especially after last month’s deadly train crash in Graniteville. Now, city and county governments are trying to learn from that tragedy.

The railroad companies don’t want you to know which hazardous chemicals are on board, or when they move through. But News 12 investigated, and shows you what they found and what is being done to protect the dangerous cargo.

Ideally, if you were starting from scratch, you would want railroad tracks to go around cities and major population centers. Unfortunately in this area we don’t have that choice. The tracks weave through our neighborhoods like a web. Both transporting necessary chemicals and at the same time putting us at risk.

Graniteville’s tragic crash that killed nine people was the worst hazardous chemical accident in U.S. history.

“On daily operations we do not know how much and what days it is moving and times when it is not,” said Chief Howard Willis, Augusta EMA Director.

Chief Howard Willis is the EMA director in Augusta. He can’t find out when the shipments happen, and neither can you. Those details of hazardous chemical shipments through the Augusta area are railroad company secrets and not revealed even to safety agencies. All anyone does know is there’s a lot.

“You’re talking 5,000 shipments through Augusta in 2003,” Willis said.

In this area two railroad companies transport chemicals, CSX and Norfolk Southern. They cite security risks and privacy as the primary reasons they don’t reveal what chemicals are moving and when.

A 2003 study by Columbia County is one of the rare times a railroad company released its numbers. CSX released a list that shows the five hazardous chemicals shipped in the Augusta-Columbia County area most frequently and their hazard level. Level one is the most dangerous.

Cyclohexane had 2,488 carloads and a hazard level three. Ammonium Nitrate had 438 carloads and a hazard level five. Carbon Dioxide had 387 carloads and hazard level two. Methanol had 136 carloads and a hazard level three. Cyclohexanone had 114 carloads and hazard level three.

Another widely shipped chemical is Chlorine, the chemical that was released from the Graniteville crash, is a level two hazard. Chlorine is made in Augusta, and the train in that accident was carrying Chlorine form South Augusta’s Olin Chemical plant.

“What happened in Graniteville was tragic, and my heartfelt sympathies go to the victims and their families, although that incident is rare, we work with federal agencies and railroads to ensure we can carefully move our products by rail,” Willis said.

Olin ships two to three rail tanker cars every day through Augusta, out to customers all over the southeast. Security at the plant is tight but when it’s out on the rails it’s out of their control.

Hazardous chemical tankers rumble through our neighborhoods multiple times every day. But as we found they also park on the rails, unguarded and in the open. We saw seven cars marked “Calcium Chloride,” a deadly chemical, parked out in an open lot. A truck drove in, filled up and went on its way. So who’s keeping track of what is moved and where? The answer seems to be only the railroad themselves.

When the rail cars headed for Graniteville left Olin Chemicals they passed right through the heart of downtown Augusta, and right by the office of Mayor Bob Young.

“We have the information, we have the technology, it is just a matter of getting the information to the people who need to know it. Not talking about putting it on the front page of the newspaper, just get it to the people who would need to know,” Willis said.

Mailing Address: P.O. Box 1212 Augusta, GA 30903 Main Telephone: (803) 278-1212 Newsroom: (803) 278-3111 newsroom@wrdw.com Fax: (803) 442-4561
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