Where You Want to Be

That’s the motto of a sleepy little burg called East Palestine, Ohio. It wasn’t so sleepy a few nights ago, however, when 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in the middle of town, including 11 tankers of toxic chemicals. Many of you have heard some of this already.

But it’s much more than one story. It’s a microcosm. It’s life in the plasticene epoch.

We’ve all had that moment while sitting at a crossing some fifty yards away from a string of fifty or sixty ominous black tank cars racing past us carrying — who the hell knows? We’ve all told ourselves something like, “If just one thing goes wrong here, they’re not going to be able to tell where I end and this car seat begins.”

Five of the cars were carrying polyvinyl chloride — the PV in PVC. I couldn’t possibly list even the main uses we have for PVC. Basically, it’s in everything from the rubberized “America First” patch on our hats to the mudders we wear on our feet to go feed the pigs. It delivers the gas that bakes our cakes and it’s behind our walls to carry our poop away. And yep, it’s in that car seat. It’s everywhere, making our lives easier in hundreds of ways. We’re not about to give it up.

When polyvinyl chloride burns it releases hydrogen chloride gas. Despite the brave efforts of the volunteers fighting the fire, officials were forced to back off and increase the burn to prevent a powerful explosion. Now the whole town still smells like the inside of a bleach bottle, animals are dying all over the place, and everybody is pissed and blaming someone, mostly the gubbermint.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with a train. The most common causes of derailment are track failure, wheel failure and bearing failure. Our story appears to be about bearing failure, or a hotbox, as it’s long been known. For many years, trainmen would walk alongside stopped freights and check for hotboxes. They also watched for them from the caboose. Hah! The caboose!

They don’t walk that walk anymore. Now there are sensors along the track, spaced every ten to twelve miles on lines taking serious traffic. If they get a positive read, a central location is notified. Then someone calls someone somewhere and asks if they should stop the train and do a repair. There is judgement involved — the sensors are far from foolproof and the availability of someone willing to take responsibility for costly decisions is sporadic at times. Maybe they wait for the next sensor unit to confirm. There’s a lot of pressure from management to get these trains though quickly and efficiently.

Many studies have pointed to the limitations of this system. There are 1,200 bearings in a modern 150 car train. Things go wrong, more often than you might think. The media often refers to deaths of mountain climbers and race car drivers as accidents. I don’t. They are inevitabilities. East Palestine was an inevitability.

So what about those Chinese bullet trains whisking people around at 300 mph, you might ask? It would be a good question. They have onboard hotbox detectors, plus wheel performance monitors as well. The first humanly undetectable bit of a heat or acoustical anomaly and the crew and managing centers are immediately aware of it. Repairs are made in the barn, before faults progress to dangerous situations, and not while delayed on a siding in the frozen hills of Appalachia. It’s expensive to fit these systems, but they save costs in the long run while saving lives.

The long run. Tell it to the stockholders when the quarterly report shows negative profits due to temporarily increased costs. One administration institued a regulation that at least flammable material tankers be fitted with pneumatic brakes that greatly reduce the stresses of stopping what are becoming longer and longer trains. The next administration tossed it. Flammables are a hot topic (forgive me). It’s all about what’s coming next, and what’s coming next is far scarier than polyvinyl chloride.

With the glut of fracked gas and increasing world demand, American energy companies are scurrying to be big exporters of liquefied natural gas. The natural gas to be liquefied and pumped into those huge bubbly looking LNG ships has to get from the fields to the ports somehow. Pipeline construction is a slow and painful process. Even the most enthusiastic industry-bought deregulators on the political scene don’t like to mess with the sacred cow of property rights, and the companies have had it up to about here with environmentalists’ court actions. It might make more sense to liquefy it before it’s tranported to the ports.

Transported how? By truck? Imagine how many trucks of LNG it would take to fill even one supertanker. Then picture the highways. Here’s a blast from a propylene truck that killed 217 people at a campsite in Spain:

Getty Images

There are some differences between propylene and LNG. LNG is super-cooled and not pressurized (until its container is breached and heating occurs). While warming, it expands. It expands a lot, which is the point of liquefying it to make shipping feasible. A vapor cloud from a punctured tanker would spread rapidly along the ground, flash freezing human flesh while dropping into and filling municipal sewer systems and foundations. Once warmed sufficiently to combust, the cloud wouldn’t explode so much as ignite, flashing back to also ignite the source. All that heating would then super-accelerate the cloud into a 6,000 degree firestorm called a bleve.

How big? How far? This is disputed. All sides seem hesitant to use the highways in an experiment to find out, which is telling.

Enter the railroads. Their principal lobbying organization, The American Railroad Association, proudly boasts on the LNG page of their website:

… more than 99.9% of the roughly 2.3 million carloads of hazmat moved by rail each year reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident.

Seems to me they’re saying as many as one in a thousand carloads have incidents. How many LNG cars until BSF and Norfolk Southern reach a thousand? An LNG rail tanker carries about 113 cubic meters. A modern seagoing tanker’s capacity is 170,000 cubic meters. That’s 1,500 rail tanker cars per ship, one and a half of them having accidents involving a release. Not such a comfort if you put it that way.

There were five tankers carrying PV in the East Palestine wreck. In 1944, a storage tank in Cleveland holding about six thousand cubic feet of LNG developed a leak, the fire eventually taking out a neighboring tank with it. The aftermath:

79 homes and two factories in a square mile destroyed by fire and explosion. 131 killed, though the coroner unofficially suggested the number to be around 200 — it was hard to tell. Things would have been far worse had the blasts happened a little later, when many more children and working adults would have been home.

That’s 55 rail tankers worth ignited in a mixed used area not particularly packed with housing. You see berms built around storage tanks now to prevent the spread of leaked liquid and/or vapor. There are no berms in the few hundred yards between the East Palestine wreck and East Palestine High. There are no berms down the tracks in Alliance, population 22,000, or in Cleveland or Canton or wherever that train was headed.

The push is on. There are eight existing LNG export facilities. Fifteen more are permitted or under construction. Another five or so are proposed. Increases to pipeline capacity to feed such facilities are falling rapidly.

The railroad cartel’s policy is that things will be a lot safer if we just knock off the mandated regulations and let them make improvements according to a sensible, cost effective manner that utilizes progress in technologies. The brake system the railroads use now was developed in Civil War days. I’m just sayin’.

“What is somebody going to do about this?” plea the good citizens of Columbiana Country to the parade of ambulance-chasing politicians stunting their way through East Palestine. “Why doesn’t somebody tell us when these trains are going through our towns,” rants Governor DeWine, as if that great deregulator is seriously proposing a new beuracracy to keep track of all that. As if some kind of warning would then clear an evacuation zone every time a toxic or flammable tanker is at the town line. As if any of that were the point. As if he gave a damn beyond chiming in as required.

Columbiana County went for DeWine 80/20 in November. Of course they did.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: