An unusual Norfolk Southern train pulled into an East Point railyard Tuesday. Rather than boxcars full of freight, tankers with chemicals and hoppers full of coal, the locomotive brought in rail cars specially equipped for firefighters to learn how to respond to rail hazards.
East Point firefighters and other first responders took the half-day training to prepare for the possibility of responding to a train accident.
It’s a prospect that has worried communities around the country since Atlanta-based Norfolk Southern’s February derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, of railcars carrying hazardous materials. The crash has disrupted life in the small town, causing fears among residents about long-term health impacts and the community’s future.
It also has put Norfolk Southern into a harsh national spotlight, with federal investigations into the company and efforts in Congress to change rail safety rules. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has vowed to improve safety in the wake of the derailment.
Norfolk Southern says since 2015 it has offered specialized training to firefighters in communities where it operates, rolling its “safety train” across the country equipped with box car classrooms, tank cars and specially-designed flat cars.
At the safety train stop Tuesday not far from the railroad’s headquarters, Shaw made an appearance to emphasize the company’s focus on safety.
“We’re accelerating first responder training,” Shaw said. “This is an effort to make us safe.”
While the East Palestine derailment has prompted criticism of Norfolk Southern from governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio as well as from federal officials, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp appeared alongside Shaw on Tuesday and emphasized his support of the company.
“We are so appreciative of the relationship we have with Norfolk Southern,” Kemp said, adding that the railroad has partnered with the state to help attract economic development projects.
During the training in East Point, firefighters learned about different tank car fittings and pressure relief devices, how to handle leaks and other tactics for response. The Norfolk Southern safety train will make about 15 stops this year, to train some 5,000 first responders around the country.
“You never know what we’re gonna face every day,” said Scott Zoebisch, an East Point Fire lieutenant.
Zoebisch remembers a rail incident from several years ago that thankfully did not cause an environmental disaster. In the East Point incident “we had a train hit a tractor-trailer full of chicken nuggets,” he said. “It’s McDonald’s chicken nuggets everywhere.”
He noted that one issue for first responders around railroad tracks is the need to find a way to route around trains blocking streets.
The problem of blocked train crossings has generated growing concerns.
On Monday, the Biden Administration announced $570 million in grants for projects in 32 states aimed at eliminating railroad crossings, including $3.2 million for projects in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Chatham counties in Georgia. Blocked crossings can prevent first responders from getting to emergencies quickly, along with delaying residents and increasing the risk of collisions, according to federal officials.
In East Palestine, work to remove contaminated dirt underneath railroad tracks continues to this day, four months after the derailment there released toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water.
In surveys conducted by the Ohio Department of Health, residents in East Palestine reported a variety of symptoms, while first responders have also reported stuffy noses, runny noses, burning noses or throats and hoarseness.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is based in Atlanta, is assessing the health impact of chemicals at the East Palestine derailment site.
Norfolk Southern said it has committed more than $36 million to the East Palestine area, including $3 million to the community’s fire department for equipment used in the derailment response and funding for air packs for breathing when responding to fires. The company says it has also committed millions in Pennsylvania to cover costs incurred by state agencies and local fire departments that responded to the derailment that occurred near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.