Derailment shows potential for toxic spills in region

Jeff Bobo • Sep 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

ROGERSVILLE — The Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed near Bulls Gap on Aug. 24 was carrying harmless concrete mix and gravel, but there are materials that travel along that line every day that are much more dangerous.

The derailment has been attributed mainly to heat. The weight of the cars combined with hot conditions caused the rails to separate and the cars to lose their wheels.

There were 17 cars involved in the derailment which occurred about a mile north of Bulls Gap near Guthrie’s Gap Road.

Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell, said he doesn’t want to create a panic. But he believes the public should know that chemicals travel on that railroad every day to and from Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, and there is a potential for toxic spills if another train derails along that line.

No one knew on Aug. 24 that they didn’t have a major disaster until the first responders arrived at the scene of the derailment.

“The initial report was that it was tankers and it was smoking,” Murrell said. “It gets your adrenaline flowing that you’re fixing to walk into something you don’t want to. Eastman receives chemicals, but most of the time their shipping out chemicals to other plants.

“Anytime you have a railroad or truck lines transporting hazardous material you can have a major problem, and that’s what we thought we were looking at.”

The day prior to the derailment, the newly formed Local Emergency Planning Committee held its first organizational meeting. The committee, comprised of rescue personnel and other county officials, will serve in an advisory capacity updating emergency plans.

Murrell said it was ironic that the possibility of a train derailment was brought up at that meeting and then occurred the next day. But the plans that were already in place seemed to be effective, he added.

“We currently have plans for emergency evacuations — who does the evacuations and where they evacuate to,” Murrell said. “Depending on where the incident is, how big the incident is, we have contingency plans with other counties to give us aid. Had that derailment been more serious, Greene and Hamblen counties would have been involved as well.

“The HAZMAT unit here in the county is responsible for containing any leakage, and if there had been a leak there would have been holding ponds dug to contain it. The railroad is responsible for cleanup.”

Murrell said the Aug. 24 derailment turned out to be an unexpected drill or practice for a more serious incident. He said all the responding agencies involved reacted as if it were a worst case scenario, and he’s confident that if the worst does happen the county can handle the problem.

“I think we’ve got a good plan down that can work, and all the responders in Hawkins County work well together,” Murrell said. “I don’t know that we need to be concerned about it happening. The railroad has been there for years and there have been several derailments in Hawkins County. Thank God none of them have had hazardous materials.

“It could also happen on the highway with a tanker. You’ve just got to be prepared.”

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