RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — When a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, it spilled toxic chemicals in the area, leading to a massive cleanup effort and testing of the water, air and residents in the village over public safety and environmental concerns.
It also revealed a reality that some may not have known before: hazardous materials and chemicals are moving on railroads throughout the country.
Reports on the specific hazardous materials being carried through an area are available to officials upon request but not to the general public.
“We haul everything that you don’t see on your roads and interstates,” Ronnie Hobbs, the Virginia legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) union, told 8News in an interview. “If it’s a byproduct of a material, chlorine to whatever, corrosive acid, all these things are moved on the railways.”
Typically more than two million carloads of hazardous materials travel each year on U.S. railroads, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).
These freight trains carry products used in everyday life, including plastics, fertilizers and other chemicals, including ethanol, sulfuric acid, soda ash, agricultural chemicals and more.
AAR freight commodity data shows 2% of the 2.2 million carloads of chemicals transported in 2021, the last year data was available, included industrial gases such as vinyl chloride, one of the hazardous substances carried by the Norfolk Southern train that went off the tracks in eastern Ohio on Feb. 3.
Railroads in Virginia
According to the AAR, there are 10 freight railroad corporations that operate in Virginia, including two major companies many may know — CSX and Norfolk Southern — and eight other, lesser-known “short line railroads.”
CSX and Norfolk Southern operated 3,010 miles of railroad in Virginia in 2021, an AAR analysis of rail industry data found.
Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows 422 Norfolk Southern and CSX railroad crossings in the following localities: Caroline, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Emporia, Fredericksburg, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, Hopewell, Petersburg, Richmond City and Midlothian.
Federal data also shows a total of 5,616 crossings, including Amtrak, in the commonwealth. Below is an interactive map from the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety showing the U.S.’s railroad crossings:
What travels in and out of Virginia
AAR’s analysis of rail industry data shows 26.9 million tons of materials left Virginia and 56.1 million tons came into the commonwealth in 2021. The top commodity in and out of Virginia on freight trains that year was coal, according to the AAR.
Data shows that 1.3 million tons of chemicals left Virginia and 3.3 million tons came into the commonwealth that year.
Tim Butters, a former administrator at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told 8News that while he believes railroads are a “very safe” method to transport these materials, he did acknowledge issues persist, including aging infrastructure in the U.S.
Butters also raised concerns over localities’ ability to respond to derailments and emergencies, especially smaller, rural areas with fewer first responders, if a chemical spill like the one in East Palestine, Ohio, would happen in Virginia.
Norfolk Southern said it could not provide shipping routes in Central Virginia, but told 8News that most of the chemicals involved in the Ohio derailment are considered volatile organic compounds, which the EPA says are “emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands,” including paints and cleaning supplies.
Multiple efforts to reach CSX for this story were unsuccessful. Below you can find some of the railroad crossings for Norfolk Southern and CSX in Virginia:
“On the verge of breaking”
Hobbs, the state legislative director of SMART’s transportation division, said railroad workers want to ensure that the railways are the safest way to transport hazardous materials, but that he doesn’t feel they are anymore.
The AAR says railroads are the safest mode of travel for hazardous materials, claiming that more than 99.9% of rail hazmat shipments reach their final destination “without a release caused by a train accident.”
But Hobbs told 8News that there’s been “a big step backward” in terms of safety, pointing to longer trains, a need for more staffing, improper infrastructure and reforms moving too slowly. Hobbs said the industry and rail workers are “on the verge of breaking” and must undergo changes moving forward.
“Our infrastructure can’t handle these four, five, six, seven-mile trains,” he said. “We actually put a bill here in Virginia that I worked with Delegate Simonds that said anything above 8,500 feet is just too excessive. We don’t have the track structure here in Virginia to handle this.”
The bill from Del. Shelly Simonds (D-Newport News) would have required other safety measures, including having at least two workers on all trains in Virginia.
A Republican-controlled House of Delegates subcommittee rejected the legislation on a party-line 4-3 vote, with one abstention, on Jan. 26, eight days before the Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio.
“They are transporting dangerous and toxic chemicals on the rails, going through our towns and our cities every day. They must stop fighting us when it comes to safety,” Simonds said in a Virginia House floor speech after the derailment. “Major rail companies have not been taking safety and security seriously enough and, at the end of the day, it’s our job in this body to make sure they do.”
Hobbs echoed Simonds’ remarks, telling 8News that requiring at least two workers would bolster safety checks and help during emergencies on the rails.
Train derailments in Virginia
Deaths and injuries caused by train derailments don’t happen often, but wrecks are not rare, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In 2014, an oil train derailed in Lynchburg and caused a fiery wreck that involved 17 train cars, three of which fell into the James River.
There have also been more recent train derailments in Richmond, including one near Hollywood Cemetery in 2021 and another near Scott’s Addition in 2022.