No need to panic.
That’s the word from the offices of Missoula’s mayor and Montana Rail Link’s (MRL) president following a June 18 train derailment and the subsequent spill of 12,000 gallons of flammable ethanol—that incident following a May 3 spill of nearly 2,500 gallons of diesel fuel, both in the downtown Missoula rail yard.
“I don’t know if we have a heightened sense of emergency now, but I think these couple of incidents have certainly drawn our attention,” mayor John Engen told the Independent Tuesday, three days after the ethanol spill that led to the precautionary evacuation of four homes in the 900 block of Phillips Street.
Derailments are an unfortunate certainty of railroad transportation. According to the Federal Railroad Commission, there were 622 derailments nationwide in 2005, 24 of which occurred in Montana.
But it was barely 10 years ago that a derailment near Alberton released 130,000 pounds of poisonous chlorine gas into the atmosphere, causing the 17-day evacuation of about 1,000 people over a 15-square-mile area. That spill sickened 350 people and killed a transient riding the train.
Common carrier laws prohibit MRL or any other railroad from saying “no” to the transport of any material that’s allowed under federal regulations. But MRL president Tom Walsh says of the 500,000 cars that pass through the Missoula yard each year, less than ten percent are carrying materials federally designated as hazardous. Of those, around 40 percent transport asphalt and the remaining 60 percent are primarily moving diesel fuel, gasoline or ethanol.
But MRL couldn’t turn back toxic tankers even if it wanted to, and as we’ve seen twice in less than seven weeks, accidents happen. So we can’t blame Missoulians for wondering…what if?
Neighbors in the area were understandably upset with what they perceived as a slow response to the derailment and spill, which occurred at 4:50 a.m. According to Walsh, it was a full 38 minutes before MRL workers identified the leak and called 911, and more than two hours before area residents were advised to evacuate.
“The 38 minutes in this particular case is really the time frame that we need to go back through and analyze…” Walsh says. “…38 minutes in a lot of cases really isn’t that long. In other cases it could be too long.”
That’s what worries us.
City and MRL officials were schedule to meet \Wednesday to analyze the response to Sunday’s derailment, which was caused by a section of faulty track that had been inspected exactly one month prior to the incident.
“This is an unfortunate incident we hope never occurs again,” Walsh says. “We’re doing everything we can not to just clean up this issue, but prevent it from ever happening again.”