Over a dozen Portage County emergency workers responded to the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine that sent toxic chemicals into the sky and soil.
Responding from Portage County were Rootstown Fire Chief Charles Palmer, Kent Fire Chief Bill Myers, Lt. Craig Peeps of the Kent Fire Department Hazardous Materials Response Team, and hazmat team members from Brimfield, Streetsboro, and Kent.
The request came from the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association, which put out a call to all available local agencies. Myers was more than ready.
“It just so happened that, especially with the mill fire that we had, I wanted to be able to reach out and help other communities as we have been helped,” he said.
The Norfolk Southern train was 150 cars long and derailed while carrying chemicals including vinyl chloride, a flammable gas that causes cancer. The company has not said what caused the derailment. Despite reassuring tests from the EPA so far, thousands of residents have evacuated the town and some have described alarming symptoms and pets dying.
Portage County’s first responders arrived and reported to the on-scene incident command team, gathering information and assessing each work period while planning for the next one. Positioned about a mile from the accident site, Myers said he never felt endangered, and did not notice any odd aromas in the air.
“Our primary mission there was to stand by and to safeguard in case things went a different direction than we had planned them to go. That did not happen, so everything went really well there. The chief of East Palestine did a great job,” Myers said.
Knowing backup personnel were ready gave the crews who were more actively involved peace of mind that they weren’t shouldering the whole load, he said.
On Feb. 6, fearing an explosion, Norfolk Southern released tanks of chemicals and diverted them to a trench to burn them. The EPA said chemicals are still being released into the environment, The New York Times reported.
Emergency management team
Portage County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management office alo scrambled into action. Stationed about a mile from the controlled burn-off were EMA Director Ryan Shackelford, EMA Deputy Director Brett Lee and EMA Logistics Agent Mike DiCarro.
“We had our decontamination trailer, we had our main hazardous materials response rig, and we had another vehicle that’s staged out of Kent called a hazmat monitoring truck, which has a lot of the monitoring and sampling equipment that we have, as well as a hood to confirm what a chemical is,” Shackelford said.
With over 60 departments on scene, Shackelford said much of the time was spent waiting for orders.
“We ended up assisting with Mahoning and Stark county to sample a product and confirm what it was. It was mineral oil. And then we ended up going into East Palestine and putting out air monitoring equipment when they did the controlled release of the product and burn off, to make sure that there were no readings coming back,” he said.
Shackelford’s team was also tasked with decontaminating anyone who might have been exposed to hazardous materials. Thankfully, he said, that did not happen.
Finding no concerning air readings, the team ended its long day in East Palestine and returned to Portage County.
“Just be thankful that Ravenna Township’s did not turn into that, which it could easily have been,” Shackelford said, recalling a Nov. 1, 2022, train derailment near South Prospect Street and State Route 44.
Ravenna derailment was also Norfolk Southern
Months after that incident, in which 22 Norfolk Southern rail cars overturned, the Federal Railroad Administration has not released information regarding the cause of the accident, and two of the rail cars remain near the site.
Ravenna Township trustees said landowners whose property was damaged have been compensated, and they have not heard any complaints from residents.
But the incident could have been much worse.
“The section that derailed was carrying rock salt, cars and SUV’s,” Shackelford said. “The train was quite long, and it had a whole host of other hazardous chemicals on it as well.”
An on-scene environmental contractor tasked with identifying and mitigating hazardous material impacts found no cause for concern, and the county engineer’s office obtained the rock salt for its own use, Shackelford said.
“I would tell you that train derailments actually happen probably more frequently than most people are aware of,” Shackelford said. “We’ve had four train derailments in Northeast Ohio in the last four to six months. There was one in Jefferson, Stark, Portage and Columbiana.”
How Portage County prepares for rail disasters
To ensure communication with the public, the EMA office maintains “Portage Prepares,” a website devoted to educating county residents about preparing for and surviving major weather events, disasters and other types of incidents.
There’s also a Facebook video called “Have you ever wondered where emergency alerts come from?” The video contains information about what emergency alerts look like and what residents’ expected actions are, Shackelford said.
“When you talk about people that live around rail lines, they need to have high situational awareness, that, yes, a train could be involved in a derailment and that in the blink of an eye you may be asked to leave your home and evacuate for your safety. You need to be prepared to do so if that happens,” he said.
EMA has completed studies to get a better idea of what sorts of products travel the county rails. That six-year-old study is available on the county website.
County EMA personnel also conducted a train derailment exercise with the City of Ravenna, the scenario being a derailment in the downtown area near the county administration building, Shackelford said.
With the East Palestine disaster fresh in people’s minds, Shackelford noted that the train derailment itself is a hazard, but his larger concern is the hazardous materials that may be released, affecting untold numbers of people who live in the area.
“You may have seconds if not minutes to get someone out of their home and to a location, which may be arduous, to say the least,” he said.
County EMA personnel have identified multiple shelter locations and evacuation routes planned across the county.
“It just depends on where the incident happens,” he said. “We had a derailment in Kent before, we had one in Ravenna Township, we had one in Newton Falls, just outside of Portage County, so it just depends on the location and what’s available to us.”
Shackelford termed the Ravenna Township derailment “a very tight location, one way in and one way out. It would have been an extreme challenge to evacuate people, but we would have chosen the best location, more than likely south into the Rootstown area. We would have worked with the Red Cross to open up a shelter at Rootstown Middle School or High School if that was far enough, if hazmat was involved.”
Local officials have no authority to reduce the speed of trains that roll through Portage County each day, Shackelford said. That would take federal or state legislation, and so far the state’s only involvement has been legislation requiring railways to notify communities when rail cars carrying crude oil might be rolling through.