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Dangerous trains rumble through western Pa. every day, and officials have no say

Leaders raise safety questions about trains carrying toxic chemicals
Leaders raise safety questions about trains carrying toxic chemicals 04:27

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Trains carrying volatile and often toxic fuels and chemicals rumble through the Pittsburgh region every day.

Local emergency managers have no say in what's coming, adding they can only prepare for the worse. KDKA-TV investigator Andy Sheehan has been reporting on these potential dangers for more than a decade. He set out to identify the present danger and find out what, if anything new, is being done to keep you safe. 

Before exploding into a toxic fireball in Ohio, the Norfolk Southern tanker train was heading into Conway, Beaver County, and likely the city of Pittsburgh beyond, where a similar disaster would have meant the evacuation of hundreds of thousands instead of the 4,700 residents of East Palestine. 

An investigation from KDKA-TV found the danger to be ever-present. Using a guidebook the U.S. Department of Transportation supplies first responders, KDKA-TV spent the past few days reading the placards on passing trains, identifying each chemical and fuel being transported.

In addition to the toxic chemical toluene, KDKA-TV found a train in the Strip District carrying butane — which if ignited would require an evacuation in a half-mile each direction, encompassing Allegheny General Hospital, UPMC Mercy Hospital, the Allegheny County Jail and Duquesne University, according to the book and Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones.

And towns don't have much more to go on. In Westmoreland County, those trains pass through 40 of the county's 65 municipalities. But because It's interstate commerce, state and local emergency managers have no say over what comes through their town. They say they get no advance warning of even the most dangerous payloads and can only prepare for the worst.

"That scares the crap out of you, especially in my position," Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tom Bell. "I'm responsible for how the public safety here in the city of Greensburg, 15,000 people. I got to be on my game and I have to make sure my team's on their game."

Since KDKA-TV has been reporting on these dangers, there has been some help to the local municipalities. The federal government now pays for local hazmat teams to train on mock derailment fires in Pueblo, Colorado. 

There are also new requirements for collision-resistant tanker cars and new speed limits through urban areas. But the locals want more information on potential dangers.

"Sharing information to the extent that you are aware is coming through your community is the best piece of preparedness you can have," said Christopher Tantlinger of Westmoreland County Emergency Management.

Closer to Pittsburgh, we've dodged the bullet with recent train accidents. A derailment in Harmar last year spilled 3,000 gallons of non-flammable petroleum distillate into the Allegheny River, and one at Station Square in 2018 dumped mountains of toothpaste and cat food. 

But Jones says knowing what's coming doesn't do much good, saying his responders just need to be prepared for a disaster in the scope of East Palestine.

"You can't wish it away," Jones said. "You just have to manage it as best we can to a successful conclusion."

But again, local emergency managers say they have no control over what goes through their communities, and they say it's not a question of if but when.

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