Friday, November 2, 2012

Kentucky Railway Responds to Wreck and Chemical Fire; Contractors Seem to Want To Be Left Alone

When dealing with a crisis, it can be easy to get off on the wrong track. In Louisville, Kentucky, this week Paducah & Louisville Railway has gotten off track literally but not metaphorically as it manages a crisis. Two subcontractors can't make the same claim.

Bear with me as I set the changing scene.

Thirteen of 57 cars on a P&L train derailed early Monday near the southwest border of Louisville. One tanker leaked butadiene, a flammable, colorless gas with a mild odor that is used in making rubber and plastic. In addition to the risk of explosion, it can pose health risks if inhaled in substantial amounts.

Ten feet away was a car carrying hydrogen fluoride, a corrosive chemical deadly in small doses. And then you've got your styrene car, another flammable, hazardous raw material, nearby.

Residents from 20 of the 32 homes in the area were quickly evacuated but were allowed to return late Monday. Evacuees from 12 homes closest to the wreck remained in shelters because of the cleanup work.

“'I think we got a huge break with the chemicals involved, that they didn’t ignite,' said Doug Hamilton, director of the Louisville Metro Emergency Management Agency.... The leak of less than 1,000 gallons of butadiene — characterized by officials as a small leak from the full, 30,000-gallon tanker car — posed the risk of explosion or fire, prompting a Level 3 HazMat alert, the highest possible. Dozens of emergency workers responded to the scene.... But air monitoring showed (there) wasn’t a risk beyond the immediate scene, Hamilton said. (

But on Wednesday things changed. "The cleanup of a derailed train in southwest Louisville took a tragic turn Wednesday when workers using a blowtorch sparked a chemical fireball that sent three of them to University Hospital with burns over 90 percent of their bodies, authorities said. Authorities evacuated 130 homes in Louisville and the nearby town of West Point — with a population of about 900 — for fear that more explosions could spew deadly hydrogen fluoride gas. And they told many others living within five miles of Monday’s train derailment to go inside and close doors and windows while they waited for the 1,3butadiene fire inside a rail car to burn itself out."

Four of the workers were with a contractor, R. J. Corman Derailment Services, hired to help remove the derailed cars. The fifth person injured worked for an unnamed P&L contractor. They were using a blowtorch to separate the butadiene car from the rest of the train when vapors from the car ignited. All workers were wearing respirators at the time, which probably saved their lives. One remained hospitalized as of Friday morning.

"It remained unclear Wednesday night why they decided to use the torch in an area with butadiene vapors. Workers normally would check for explosive vapor levels before working with a blowtorch, Hamilton said, adding that he did not know what procedures they followed....

"R. J. Corman representatives did not participate in news conferences Wednesday, and a spokesman for the company did not immediately return calls for comment."

By Thursday, a Corman spokesperson provided updated conditions of the hospitalized workers, but that was it, based on coverage in Friday's The Courier-Journal. Corman's website ( doesn't have any information about the accident.

"Maj. Henry Ott of the arson squad ... said Thursday afternoon that he is trying to reach officials from a company called CTEH in Arkansas, who were providing air monitoring during the operation, but 'some of the key people have left and returned to Arkansas.' (Gerald Gupton, vice president of engineering for P&L) confirmed the air quality monitoring data was provided by CTEH, also known as the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health. Gupton said crews believed it was safe to use the torch because monitoring suggested the air was clear."

And probably to no one's surprise, "Ted Snider, the CEO of CTEH, did not return telephone messages Thursday."

I'm a constant critic of the railroads and the brick walls they build around themselves. Did you ever try to contact someone at a railroad company to get a speaker or ask for information? Good luck with that! But P&L Seems to be doing what it should be doing.

The railroad has been providing information: "P&L President Tom Garrett said the train was heading from Paducah to Louisville when the accident occurred, shortly after 6 a.m. Two crew members were on board, he said. No one was injured. The train had six locomotives, 48 loaded cars and nine empty cars, Garrett said. He added that investigators will, once allowed onto the site, begin reviewing physical evidence, inspecting the cars and track and interviewing crew members. A train event recorder, which preserves speed and braking information, will also be examined, he said."

And later: "Gerald Gupton, vice president of engineering for Paducah & Louisville Railway, said specialized equipment will be brought in today to secure the hydrogen fluoride cars. He said they must be moved to level ground before crews can unload the chemical.... A third worker who was burned left the hospital, said Bonnie Hackbarth, a spokeswoman for the railroad company."

P&L issued a statement Wednesday evening: "It was 'prepared to support those who live in the area and have been directly impacted by helping to secure lodging and attending to other immediate needs.' It said the company would open an outreach center at VFW Post 1181, 6518 Blevins Gap Road, at 8 a.m. (Thursday) for displaced residents seeking reimbursement for lodging, food, lost work days and travel expenses."

“'Paducah & Louisville continues to work with first responders and to cooperate fully with an investigation into both Monday’s derailment and today’s flash fire,' the statement said. 'We deeply appreciate the work of all agencies.... We will reassess the recovery efforts today and work with first responders to determine the next steps.'”

The principal spokesperson has been from the local Emergency Management Agency, which is appropriate. This individual is used to that and is good at it. P&L has been open, answered questions, and issued a release. My criticism is that the railroad has nothing about the derailment or its news release posted on its website. ( Most important is establishment of the outreach center for displaced residents. With photo ID, they can receive $100 a day for adults, $50 for children to cover expenses while inconvenienced.

That might prevent some lawsuits, and it might not. "Tom FitzGerald, an environmental attorney and director of the Kentucky Resources Council, cautioned residents not to sign any documents that would release the company from liability without consulting an attorney. Hackbarth (of P&L), however, said the company is not linking payouts to any liability releases."

Be fair in a crisis. Treat victims as you would want to be treated if your life were disrupted for a week or even a day. Be sure to work closely with the PIO to be sure "official" communications are accurate and that your messages don't contradict others'. And when the immediate danger is past and the media have moved on, continue keeping neighbors informed of surface cleanup, air and water monitoring results, the cause of the wreck, and how you plan to correct that cause.

And for crying out loud, have a crisis communications plan that has been practiced and is quickly accessible. You never want "train wreck" used to describe your company's communications.

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