Molten Sulfur Release

Sulfur car derailment Florida

As we have discussed in earlier posts, approximately 6% of the freight cars that transit Ashland carry ‘highly hazardous chemicals’. These are materials that are flammable, explosive or toxic (often a combination of these three). And many of these cars carry elemental sulfur.

Today (2017-11-27) a CSX freight train derailed in Lakeland, Florida. It is reported that several cars rolled over and that four of those cars contained molten sulfur. There was a significant release of sulfur and there appears to be considerable damage. There are no reports of injuries.

Elemental sulfur comes from oil refineries. The crude oil that they receive contains sulfur compounds that need to be removed in the early stages of the refining process. These compounds are converted to sulfur, which is then loaded as a liquid into tank cars. These are transported to sites were the sulfur is used to manufacture many chemicals, including the sulfuric acid used in car batteries.

The melting point for sulfur is 115C/239F — and it is transported at a higher temperature than this to prevent it from solidifying in the cars. Which means that it is hot — much hotter than boiling water. (In the Bible it is referred to as Brimstone).

The image below shows the NFPA 704 Diamond for elemental sulfur.

NFPA Diamond SulfurIf there is a spill of sulfur there are three issues to consider.

Toxicity
In its solid form at room temperature sulfur is virtually non-toxic although sulfur dust is a mild irritant to some peple.

Thermal Burns
If someone is close to a sulfur spill they could be badly burned by the hot liquid.

Flammability
Sulfur is flammable. The combustion produces highly toxic sulfur dioxide gas. The following advice is given to firefighters.

If tank, rail car or tank truck is involved in a fire, ISOLATE for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions; also, consider initial evacuation for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions. (ERG, 2016)

What does all this mean for the residents of Ashland?

Well, there is no such thing as a good sulfur spill. However, were there to be a release such as the one in Florida, the sulfur should solidify quite quickly, thus reducing the hazards to do with toxic gases and fire. However, were the release to be in a trench the sulfur would have nowhere to flow. This would increase the risk of fire and the associated production of highly toxic sulfur dioxide fumes. Furthermore, the emergency response teams would have a more difficult time working with a spill in a trench than they would in an open location.

Sulfur car derailment Florida

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Highly Hazardous Chemicals — Trench

Burning tank car

One of the concerns to do with the trench option is that a release from a tank car carrying highly hazardous chemicals could be particularly serious because there is nowhere for explosive or toxic vapors to disperse and so become diluted. This concern is a particular concern for light flammable materials such as LPG (of which we have many cars). If the gas leaks to an open space (as it would now) then we could have an unconfined vapor cloud explosion. In the trench, however, we could have a confined vapor cloud explosion, which is much worse.

At the meeting where the trench option was first mooted it was reported that studies to do with highly hazardous chemicals in trenches have been carried out but that the team had not had a chance to look at them. Since my specialty is process risk management I asked for copies of those reports.

I received the following reply today.

*****************

Dear Mr. Sutton,

Federal regulations direct railroads to assess the risks for hazardous materials shipment routes. The DC2RVA Team found that risk analysis reports for other trench projects were not publicly available due to potentially sensitive security information.

Sincerely,
Emily Stock

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The way that the EPA manages the security of this type of information under their Risk Management Program is to provide secure rooms and to check who is looking at the reports. But the fundamental policy is that such information needs to be available to the public in general and emergency services in particular.

I wrote to Ms. Stock as follows.

*****************

Dear Ms. Stock:

Thank you for your reply. I recognize that the information in these reports is sensitive and may represent a security concern. Nevertheless, the information should be made available to interested parties, particularly professional risk analysts and emergency responders.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) faces the same problem with their Risk Management Program (RMP). They do provide company reports to members of the public, but under controlled circumstances (for example, with secure rooms).

As you know I have worked in process risk management for many years. I would like to see these reports. I would, of course, agree to any reasonable security controls.

Regards,

Ian Sutton

*****************

savedowntownashland

Cave In San Gabriel
The Ashland town council has published a letter that provides further detail on its opposition to the trench option. The letter is available here and at the town site. The town has also opened a new web site — http://www.savedowntownashland.org/ — that provides a convenient way for submitting comments to the DRPT (further details here).

Greenfield / Brownfield

 

Map of CSX operations
CSX Operations

In all the discussions to do with the various options for increased rail capacity I don’t recall any that are written from the point of view of CSX operations.

 

The western bypass option is what is referred to as “greenfield”. It would be built as a stand-alone project that would not affect current operations. Once the bypass is built they quickly cut over to the existing tracks. This means that the managers who are running the trains while construction is taking place can continue their work as normal. Current operations would not be affected at all. The transition to the new system would be quick and seamless.

The trench option is “brownfield” — they would be building new track while attempting to maintain current train service — both freight and passenger. Doing so will be extraordinarily difficult. The concerns include the following:

  • There will be constant interruptions to existing operations as construction equipment is moved around and temporary tracks are built, relocated and removed.
  • Inevitably the operations managers will have to run a single-track system at times — they may even drop down to zero tracks occasionally.
  • It will be a huge challenge to ensure the safety of the workers. They will be working just a few feet from mainline trains that are constantly rumbling by. Given a philosophy of “safety first” this means that train operations will often have to be discontinued, often on very short notice.

The reality is that the trench operation will severely impact the reliability and profitability of CSX operations for many years whereas the bypass option which will have minimal impact.

Trench Box

Trench Box used to protect workers during digging

The trench option includes a new and unusual feature — one that could pose unacceptable risk to the construction workers.

CSX needs to maintain two tracks in operation — after all this is a two to four year project and they have a business to run. In other projects, such the Alameda trench the existing rail system was kept in operation while the trench was being dug. Hence operations were not affected during the construction phase. (It would see the same were the western bypass to be selected — CSX would run trains in the normal manner on the existing tracks. They would then connect the new and the old tracks in a very short period of time.)

However, given that CSX is not able to build a third, temporary track through Ashland they have proposed that a temporary wall be placed longitudinally along the trench. There would be fill on one side of the wall, with two tracks on it. The other side would consist of the gradually growing trench.

When digging trenches for pipelines, if there is not sufficient space for sloping walls construction managers often make use of a trench box — as shown in the picture at the top of this post. In our case the box would be enormous and would have to have cross supports stretching all the way across the digging area. It is difficult to visualize how this can be done safely. And the box would have to grow down as the trench became deeper.

Note: A trench box is no good at all if, as shown in the picture, workers don’t use it.

Letter to DRPT

Letter Ashland DRPT train safety

John Hodges and I have sent a letter/report to the DRPT expressing our concerns to do with safety and the proposed third track through Ashland. The letter, which was written on Ashland Museum letter head, has three main sections:

1. Vehicle / Train Collisions
Cars frequently drive on to the tracks. Many of these events have been recorded by the organization Virtual Railfan. In some instances the events have led to trains hitting cars. People have been injured — we are fortunate that so far there have been no fatalities. Adding an additional track and many more trains will create a safety situation that is untenable.

2. Highly Hazardous Chemicals
Approximately 6% of the freight traffic consists of tank cars carrying chemicals that are flammable, explosive or toxic. In the process industries it is normal to conduct a Formal Safety Assessment to do with such chemicals. We believe that such a study should be carried out for our community.

3. Engineering Standards
We need more detail to do with the standards for,

  1. Spacing between tracks.
  2. Spacing between the outer edge of the tracks and the first public access point.
  3. Whether modern standards will be applied to the existing tracks.

Florida Crash

CSX Florida Train Crash 2016

Two CSX trains collided today at a location in central Florida. Although this event did not involved highly hazardous chemicals it does give us an idea as to the impact of such an incident. (The first reports state that there was a 4,000 gallon fuel leak although it appears as if it did not catch fire. It is not clear if this number refers to the actual or potential size of the leak.)

Based on the pictures  and movie clips that have been made available so far some of the derailed cars are at least one a car length away from the tracks. Most freight cars are around 60 ft. long (including their attachments).As the sketch below shows, currently there is a distance of 351 inches or 29.25 ft. from the outer edge of the rail to community property.existing
Therefore, were an event such as this to take place in Ashland, it would impact many homes and businesses.

 

Draft Tier II EIA: Analysis #1 – What’s Not There: Safety

Toxic East Tennessee train derailment

Introduction

On November 8th the Commonwealth of Virginia Attorney General’s office released a draft of the Tier II Environmental Impact Statement (EIA). A copy of the document is available at the Town of Ashland web site here. (Due to the size of the document it takes a few minutes to download the document. Be patient.)

The document is lengthy (1426 pages) and is difficult to navigate because the Adobe ‘Find’ function does not work, at least not on the document that we downloaded. I will analyze the document as time permits and publish a set of Analyses.

Disclaimer: Because there is so much material in this document it is possible that some of the early conclusions will have to be adjusted as the analysis proceeds.

My first reaction to the draft EIS is a huge “missing section”. There is no solid discussion about the most important topic of all: Safety.

There are various categories of safety. For the purposes of this analysis we will look at two of them:

  1. A spill of a Highly Hazardous Chemical from a damaged tank car.
  2. A grade crossing event involving either a vehicle or a pedestrian.

Chemical Tank Car Safety

We have discussed chemical tank car safety in many previous posts. Probably the most relevant is the Lynchburg derailment. After all, this occurred in our state just over two years ago.

What Can Happen

The general scenario is as follows.

  1. A tank car is badly damaged, say by hitting another car or by coming off the tracks. (The picture at the top of this post is an example of the second failure mode.It is of  a car carrying toxic chemicals through Tennessee in July 2015. The chemical in question — acrylonitrile — is toxic, flammable and water soluble. This event led to serious contamination of both the soil and groundwater.)
  2. The chemical spill leads to the formation of a cloud of toxic gas that drifts into the local community, or the spilled contents explode and catch fire. One of the tenets of my work is not be alarmist. But, should such an event take place within the town of Ashland, the loss of life and injuries to people could be very high indeed.)

Now the likelihood of such an event is low, but it is not zero. Indeed, an Internet search shows that there have been quite a few of this type of event in recent years. Moreover we know how to analyze events of this type using EPA-approved software. Chemical risk management is a mature topic.

Options

Up until this point we have simply accepted the risks to do with highly hazardous chemicals being hauled through the town of Ashland. “That’s the way it’s always been”. But now that we are looking at new track configurations it would be irresponsible not to select the safest option. And that option is to run chemical tanks cars on a bypass around town. This would improve safety for the following reasons.

  1. The population density would be much lower. Hence the impact would be correspondingly less.
  2. A new track would be built to the latest standards of safety, particularly with regard to track spacing. Hence the likelihood of such an event taking place would be as low as can be achieved.
  3. Emergency vehicle access would be good since all crossings would be bridges, hence the roads would not be blocked by the stopped train.

Traffic Crossing Safety

Amtrak incident Myrtle Street Ashland VA 2012

The second type of safety with which railroads concern themselves is collisions between vehicles or people at grade crossings. (The picture shows the consequence of a train traveling at 9½ mph hitting a car crossing the tracks at Myrtle St.)

Events such as these occur quite frequently. The town of Ashland is a particular concern due to the large number of vehicles that transit England St. and Ashcake Rd. On the other hand the proposed bypass will have only bridge crossings and (presumably) fences to prevent people and livestock from crossing the tracks.

One of the options presented at the recent community meeting at the Ashland theater was to run just passenger trains through Ashland and to direct freight trains (and presumably express passenger trains) on a bypass. Not only would such a bypass option be inherently safer due to the absence of grade crossings, safety will also be enhanced because there would be fewer trains traveling through Ashland. A rough estimate is that around 80% of the trains are freight. If most of these could be diverted we would see a corresponding improvement in safety. Moreover, passenger trains are shorter and can brake more quickly: another safety enhancement.

Conclusions

Ashland VA train tracks — no third rail

Running just passenger trains through town and diverting most of the freight trains to a bypass is unequivocally the safest option.

Dungeon Hunter 5

Bad Aibling train crash

This rail tragedy in Bad Aibling, Bavaria, in which 12 persons died and many more were injured, was caused by the train controller using his mobile phone while working.

Prosecutors said Michael P had been playing the fantasy game “Dungeon Hunter 5” on his phone when he allowed the two trains on to a single-track line.

The court heard from one police official that the controller had regularly played on his smart phone while on shift, even though it was banned. Analysis of his phone records showed that his mobile use often corresponded with his working hours.

“He played almost every time,” the official said, according to Germany’s DPA news agency.

There was a similar incident in London, England a couple of years ago in which the driver of a commuter train was using his mobile phone as he approached the terminus. He slammed into the buffers causing many passenger injuries.

I have worked in the process industries for all of my career. Safety is given the very highest priority — not least because the consequences of a large release of a Highly Hazardous Chemical can be so catastrophic. We have known for a long time that the use of a mobile/cell phone while driving is dangerous. We may think that we are looking at the road and watching the traffic but psychologists tell us that we are mentally “looking at” the person we are talking to and that our driving is receiving only 30% of our attention. For this reason companies in the process industries insist that mobile phones be switched off while driving; moreover, the use of a phone while driving is grounds for termination.

If you are driving, for your own safety and for the safety of your neighbors, please turn off your cell phone.

Thank you.

Train Day: 2016

Train Day 2016 Ashland VA

This year’s Train Day is Saturday, November 5th. Please visit the event site to learn more.

The “No Third Rail” team will have a table in front of the museum on Hanover Ave. Volunteers will discuss the impact of the proposed project. (If you would like to help as a volunteer please let us know.)

Based on what we heard yesterday it appears as if what we have been calling ‘Case A’ (existing tracks stay in place) will not happen. So we move to ‘Case B’ which has an even greater impact. Therefore the sketch below, which is for ‘Case A’ (and which was derived from our limited knowledge as to what engineering standards are being used on this project), is probably too conservative, i.e., the impact of the Third Rail will be greater than shown. It is likely that there will be little or no road access and just narrow sidewalks. Some buildings will have to be be moved or eliminated. (We have not yet been able to access yesterday’s presentation that shows the DRPT sketch of the impact of the third rail — we will do so when the information becomes available. We can then update our own analysis.)

Impact of Third Rail on Ashland VA