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Quick response avert fiery explosions after fuel-filled train cars derail in downtown Middlebury

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FIREFIGHTERS STAND BY as an emptied tanker car is lowered back onto its wheels Wednesday at the site of Monday’s train wreck in Middlebury. The cars were all expected to be set back on the tracks and hauled away sometime Thursday.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell



October 25, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Railway officials have tentatively cited a broken section of rail line as the cause of a train accident that toppled 18 cargo cars in downtown Middlebury on Monday, sending an undetermined amount of gasoline into the Otter Creek.

Fire, police and state environmental officials, fearing an explosion or adverse health effects from breathing gasoline fumes from the spill, cordoned off most of downtown Middlebury to traffic for almost 24 hours after the 2 p.m. accident. During that time crews evaluated the site and began moving the rail car wreckage while keeping the gasoline spill to a minimum.

As of Wednesday afternoon officials said they hoped to have the line open again by late Thursday.

While the accident temporarily inconvenienced motorists and an estimated 400 to 500  residents of the Cross Street/Main Street/South Pleasant Street neighborhoods who had to be evacuated (see related story), Middlebury officials breathed a collective sigh of relief realizing that no one had been hurt and that things could have been a whole lot worse.

“We are so thankful this was not a catastrophe,” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington. A nightmare scenario would’ve seen the train — heading through Middlebury on its way to Burlington from Albany, N.Y. — derail around 100 yards further north up the tracks, directly under the Merchants Row and Main Street overpasses. Had the gasoline ignited under those circumstances, Dunnington said a chain reaction of explosions could have caused fatalities while potentially destroying the nearby Middlebury Fire Department headquarters on Seymour Street and the Battell Bridge, the town’s one major span crossing the Otter Creek and linking the eastern and western sections of Middlebury. That, in turn, would have reduced access to Porter Hospital.

“We have been aware for many years that the biggest potential hazard (for Middlebury) was a catastrophic explosion,” Dunnington said.

While there was no explosion, the incident was bad enough.

Eric Davis, a Middlebury College professor of political science, was leaving Steve’s Park Diner on Merchants Row at around 1:54 p.m. on Monday when he saw the ill-fated train coming. He paused on the Merchants Row overpass to watch what he thought would be the uneventful daily run of the freight train.

But as the train got closer, he noticed something out of the ordinary.

“The cars did seem to be vibrating more than usual and were swaying from side-to-side,” Davis recalled. “Then the train stopped very suddenly.”

He watched incredulously as several cars down from the locomotive began to topple in the direction of the Otter Creek. He quickly called 9-1-1. The derailment extended from the railroad trestle on Water Street almost all the way to Merchants Row.

Davis said he doesn’t believe the train was going any faster than it usually does. The speed limit on the line through downtown Middlebury is 10 miles per hour, and Vermont Railway President David Wulfson confirmed on Tuesday the Monday train was not exceeding that limit.

“The speed recorder on the locomotive showed the train was going 10 mph,” Wulfson said. “The crew that was in charge of the train was one of our most experienced train crews.”

The freight train consisted of 25 cars/tankers, 18 of which overturned. Fourteen of the 15 tanker cars containing gasoline overturned, while four cars carrying rock salt also derailed. Officials believe seven of the overturned fuel tankers had leaks, with one having what was considered to be a “major” leak.

Chris Herrick, coordinator of the Vermont Hazardous Materials Response Team, identified “car number 10” as having the biggest leak, with signs that gasoline had saturated into the soil. He suspects the largest leak was emitting gasoline at around one gallon per minute.

“Some (gasoline) did get into the Otter Creek,” Herrick said. “Most of what leaked out of the cars is contained in the soil or in the absorbents we used on-site. A small percentage of it did get into the Otter Creek. The good news is, it’s going over the waterfall, and that helps disperse it back into the air. Downstream, we are not getting any readings indicating a significant compromise of the Otter Creek.”

Like Dunnington, Herrick believes the news could have been much worse.

“The potential (was) gigantic,” Herrick said. “Fifteen cars carrying 26,000 gallons (each). We had a very small amount of it on the ground. I don’t have a gallon figure, but it’s more than a gasoline tank in a car and it had the potential to be much worse. The great actions of the Middlebury Fire Department and all the responding agencies minimized the impact.”

Herrick on Tuesday said he was confident that people living near the accident site could go back to their everyday lives without fear for their health.

“I know they will be remediating the soils, taking any contamination out of there,” Herrick said. “Anything in the river is long gone, so I don’t see any long-term concern.”

NO HEALTH EFFECTS

Justin Johnson, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said he was satisfied that there would be no long-term health impacts to residents and the environment.

“We will be doing some ongoing monitoring of the river over the next few days,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “Gasoline is not like oil; it doesn’t sit in the water… We’ve taken some samples today, at the bottom of the river and we’ll work our way up.”

State environmental officials installed equipment along the banks of the Otter Creek near the accident, which could be seen from across the river at Mr. Ups restaurant and Bakery Lane, to trap gasoline before it could seep into the water. The gasoline shipment belonged to Global Companies LLC of Waltham, Mass.

Wulfson said that, ironically, a Vermont Railway patrolman cutting a nearby tree did a visual inspection of the rail line only 15 minutes before the accident took place. But Wulfson said he is not surprised that the visual inspection did not flag any abnormality in the track. Using a coat-hanger analogy, he said a piece of defective track could’ve looked normal but given way under the stress of cars weighing in excess of 125 tons when loaded.

“We’re still investigating what has caused this, however preliminarily, it seems that a broken rail has caused this mess,” Wulfson said on Tuesday. “That needs to be verified, but at this point that’s where we’re at.”

The rail line through Middlebury had last been tested six months ago, according to Wulfson. Such tests are usually conducted at least once per year. The Middlebury line had been scheduled for an electronic inspection on Tuesday, Oct. 23, according to Wulfson.

“It will be tested as soon as this mess is cleaned up,” said Wulfson, who hoped the line would be back open for business before the end of this week. Vermont Railway hired the Pennsylvania-based firm Hulcher Services Inc. to bring in heavy equipment to right and move rail cars, even in areas where there are steep embankments. Workers transferred fuel from the disabled train cars into tractor-trailer tankers.

Wulfson said he hopes Vermont Railway’s insurance company will defray the costs of the cleanup.

In the meantime, Vermont Railway is getting the freight hauled using alternative routes.

Wulfson noted the state’s railway system was largely installed during the mid-1800s, with multiple upgrades since then. He said he believes the rail line through Middlebury was last improved as a state project during the 1980s, and was “slated for change-out during this construction season, either during the late fall or next spring, depending on when the new rail arrives.”

Monday’s accident should be seen as a very rare occurrence, according to Wulfson.

“We’ve run this tank train through (Middlebury) …  since 1974 without an incident, and it runs every day,” Wulfson said. “This is a vital fuel and gas link to the state of Vermont.”

Back on May 23, Middlebury town officials wrote Wulfson expressing concern about a “fairly serious wetness/drainage problem on the tracks just south of the Battell Block — the RR ties appear to be in standing water and pumping clay up as trains travel over it … Although we’re fairly sure VT Railway is aware of this problem, we just wanted to let you know in case… ”

Wulfson said on Tuesday that Monday’s accident was in no way attributable to any drainage/wet spots at the track.

Vermont Railway officials planned to conduct an investigation of the incident, as will state and federal authorities, according to Wulfson.

He said that roughly $3 million is spent each year to maintain Vermont’s rail system, with the prime goal of getting Amtrak passenger service to Burlington.

Jon Zicconi, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the state plans to “invest $40 million in this rail line over the next handful of years.”

CLEANUP PROGRESSES

Middlebury Fire Chief Richard Cole reported late Wednesday afternoon that seven of the toppled fuel cars and four salt cars had been placed back on the railway — about half of the total.

Cole said there had been “fabulous cooperation” among the local, state and federal authorities and contractors who were tending to what he called the most significant accident he had seen in his 30 years on the Middlebury Fire Department.

“Everyone has been great and worked well together,” Cole said. “We had close to 400,000 gallons of gasoline here and could’ve had a real disaster.”

Wulfson estimated train traffic would be restored on the line as soon as Thursday evening. Once the rail right-of-way is cleared, Wulfson said crews would build 300 feet of track from scratch, while repairing another 1,000 feet.

“That really isn’t that much, considering what we were looking at earlier,” Wulfson said.

He added state and federal authorities, in concert with Vermont Railway, will certify the tracks’ stability before it is reopened to freight traffic.

“Right now, our track department will do the work and also the inspections,” Wulfson said. “We also have the Federal Railroad Administration here who will also be looking at the track and making sure that things are done correctly.”

LETTER FROM FINGER

Middlebury officials are expecting no less, as evidenced by a letter sent by Town Manager Bill Finger to Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville on Wednesday.

“As the owner of the railroad tracks and related facilities it is incumbent on the State of Vermont to certify to the Town of Middlebury that ALL railroad track, bridges and facilities in the Town have been thoroughly and correctly restored, replaced or repaired to meet or exceed all federal and state standards BEFORE the railroad is allowed to resume operation,” the letter reads. “We expect a clear and prompt response regarding the schedule and process for railway restoration, inspection and certification. This will enable us to convey confidence to our citizens that every possible effort is being made to assure their safety.”

Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury, echoed that sentiment.

“I’m very concerned, and even alarmed by the idea that they would be running hazardous material, including gasoline, through our community until we are absolutely sure it was safe,” Maier said. “All of our leaders, including Gov. (James) Douglas, need to make sure our community is safe before we allow those sort of materials on the line again.”

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