In light of recent train derailments, Allamakee County Emergency Management explains local plan in the event of hazardous results

Plans in place, just in case ... The train derailment pictured above from June 2022 along the Mississippi River just south of Lansing is one in a recent series of derailments in the local and national news that has Allamakee County residents wondering about what local plans might be in response to such incidents. Allamakee County Emergency Management Coordinator Corey Snitker and other local and railroad authorities work to continually enhance the County’s established response plan to an incident such as this, or worse. Standard photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

by Ellen Modersohn

Train derailments in East Palestine, OH in February and in De Soto, WI earlier this month have many Allamakee County residents wondering what would happen if there were a toxic spill or fire resulting from a rail accident here. Tracks used by Canadian Pacific (CP) run along the Mississippi River on the county’s eastern border and cross its southwestern corner at Postville.

CP merged in December 2022 with the Kansas City Southern railroad and Corey Snitker, Allamakee County Emergency Management Coordinator, expects the volume of trains along the eastern tracks in the county to double, to an average of 14 trains per day.

Federal data from 2021 and 2022 show an average of three train derailments per day in the U.S., according to a recent report by USA Today. Trains left the tracks 1,164 times last year and 1,095 in 2021, which is a significant decrease from past decades. In 1979, for instance, railroads reported 7,482 derailments across the United States.

The Association of American Railroads trade group reports that the hazardous material accident rate has declined 55 percent since 2012, with 99.9 percent of all hazmat shipments reaching their destination safely. However, a USA Today analysis found that hazardous materials still spilled or leaked from trains more than 5,000 times in the U.S. in the past decade.

The most recent derailment in Allamakee County was in June 2022, when 10 cars went off the rails four miles south of Lansing. One car tipped coal into the river.

Snitker said that hazardous materials incidents in Iowa usually involve spills, not fires - especially like what transpired in the East Palestine, OH derailment. Most of the materials moving through Allamakee County that fall into the hazardous category are oils, on the north-south trains, and alcohols and ethanol, on the east-west trains.

The County has a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan that includes 15 ESFs (emergency support functions), each of which would be put into play as needed, depending on the type and severity of the incident. ESFs are focused on areas such as communications, firefighting, mass care and housing, search and rescue, public safety, recovery and much more.

The State of Iowa provides the overall format for the plan, which each county is required to develop. Every county updates 20 percent of its plan each year so that by the end of five years the plan has been completely revised.

The only ESF that must be updated every year is ESF 10, dealing with hazardous materials. Most of the County’s focus on hazardous materials concerns fixed facilities within the county that use chemicals that must be reported to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Snitker receives that information as well. ESF 10 would also come into play in a natural gas pipeline leak or a toxic spill from a railcar or other transport.

In a train accident, local fire departments and law enforcement would be first on the scene, Snitker said. As emergency response coordinator, he and his team would be close behind. Gathering information would be the first task.

“Our responders would be making the decisions, working with the rail employees on the scene, for instance the engineers, to immediately determine what’s actually happening, what’s on the train, what’s been released,” Snitker said.

The engineer will have a manifest that lists what is on the train, and Snitker has access to technology that allows him to look up trains by number and railcar number to see what they are carrying. County dispatch also has communication with CP rail, so there are multiple ways the County can find out what trains are carrying.

As the rail company brings in its experts, the County and rail teams would develop a unified command. “Their specialized crews know how to deal with everything on that train,” Snitker said. But if an evacuation is needed, local fire departments, whose members have had hazardous materials training, would typically make that call.

Responders and Snitker would use multiple forms of communication to deliver evacuation information. Area residents can be notified through a cell phone activation system called Alert Iowa, which people can sign up for at Local officials can also ask the weather service to send out an alert, the way it does for tornado warnings.

Snitker added, “We can use the radio and social media through cities and fire departments that have their own social media pages. We might even have people going door to door. We’re trying to create a ‘cheat sheet’ for those going door to door that would include what people need to know about where to go, what to take with them, where to get further information.”

The County’s emergency management office is developing an evacuation plan for every community, to be finished this year. Each city has its own considerations, Snitker said.

“In New Albin, for instance, the issue would be like now, the fact that you’ve got so much water around it. The rest of the year, if you had to move people, they could walk across the fields because the river isn’t always up that far. We talked about Harpers Ferry; the same situation. If a train derails and locks up all the crossings, residents can move north,” he said.

But even in a hazardous materials spill, evacuation might not always be the best choice, Snitker said. “You might just have people shelter in place if they’re better off in their houses than being exposed outside. It depends on the material, on the quantity of the materials, the wind directions - there’s lots of things that come into play.”

When the master evacuation plan is completed, there will be a tabletop exercise with responders from across the county, including scenarios for the six incorporated cities - Waukon, Postville, Lansing, New Albin, Waterville and Harpers Ferry. Smaller communities will be included in the general county plan.

“We are going to do it by increments - what are you going to do in the first 15 minutes, the first 30 minutes? I’ll provide information about what the scenario is - what responders see based on where they are and what the chemical is. Then the engineer shows up and gives them the manifest. Maybe in hour three or four the rail team comes in and you start forming a unified command,” Snitker said. “You set up a scenario that’s going to do a good job of rehearsing the majority of the plan, but it’s designed to allow success, not failure. It’s designed to catch holes in the plan.”

Snitker is also considering developing a specific emergency rail response plan that would focus on giving the railroads the information they need about Allamakee County, such as where there is space for command centers and parking and where rail crews can find lodging and food.