By Jean Dickson and Larry Brooks
The March 1 train derailment in Ripley should serve as a warning to all residents of Western New York, and especially to those living close to the rail lines.
Many people give no thought to the passing freight trains that run along the Lake Erie shore, through our suburbs, and around the Beltline, which runs through Buffalo’s dense Black Rock, North, East Side and South neighborhoods with tracks crossing the Buffalo River in several places.
A century ago, there were even more tracks through the city, but the trains carried passengers and freight, which was mostly heavy and inert, such as grain, coal and lumber. If a car derailed, the only people hurt were those standing along the tracks. Now the freight includes huge quantities of hazardous chemicals, including chlorine gas, hydrochloric acid, ethanol, liquefied petroleum gas, propane and petroleum crude oil.
In Ripley, residents were very lucky that no spark lit up the ethanol and propane tank cars that derailed. In Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013, people were not so lucky: 47 people died when petroleum crude oil exploded and a large part of the town was burned. The downtown area is not yet habitable almost three years later, due to soil and water contamination.
Firefighters in Ripley knocked on doors to evacuate residents, but this took some time. The cars derailed at 9:30 p.m.; a resident interviewed by WBFO said he was awakened and evacuated at 11 p.m. If the cars had exploded, as in Quebec, this would have been much too late. In Buffalo, the number of people to evacuate would greatly exceed the 50 or so households evacuated in Ripley.
Ripley residents were also lucky that no tank cars of poisonous gas derailed. If one car of chlorine gas had burst open, it would have killed people for miles around, depending on wind conditions, even without a fire.
In Buffalo, this hazardous freight crosses more than 30 bridges, most of which are 100 or more years old. They belong to companies such as CSX and are used by many railroad companies. Some are in decrepit condition, rusty and dropping chunks of concrete on our roads as they fall apart.
While this railroad infrastructure is in corporate hands, the public has little influence on its condition. Before a deadly derailment occurs, we must do everything possible to inspect and repair bridges and to reroute the hazardous freight away from populated areas.
In the long run, we should make every effort to decrease the use of such hazardous chemicals.
Jean Dickson and Larry Brooks live adjacent to Beltline tracks in Buffalo.