D.C. EMS personnel haven’t conducted a rail emergency exercise in recent years and the last time the city’s first responders received specialized training for handling such emergencies was five years ago. In addition, the city doesn’t inspect freight rail shipments or rail infrastructure in the city.
That’s what top EMS officials told the D.C. Council on Monday during an oversight hearing on the proposed reconstruction of a CSX rail tunnel in Southeast Washington, a project that has revived concerns about the safety and security of the city’s railways.
Officials emphasized, however, that protocols are in place in the event of a derailment or a hazmat emergency. And even though no rail emergency exercises have been held in recent years, regular hazmat drills are conducted and all emergency personnel have had some level of training in handling hazardous materials..
The District’s top homeland security official, however, said the city needs to update its assessment of vulnerabilities related to rail safety and security, which became a hot topic in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks.
Chris T. Geldart, director of the District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA), said the agency is working with CSX on a new system that will allow law enforcement to know in real time what trains traveling through the city are carrying, including any hazardous materials. He said HSEMA personnel are being trained on the system this week.
The new system, he said, will be accessible to police and other law enforcement agencies, giving them all the information they need to better assess any security and safety threats.
If CSX moves forward with the rebuilding of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, in Southeast, the city would need to come up with a current assessment of railroad vulnerabilities given that reconstruction of the tunnel also would mean an expansion of freight transportation through the area, Geldart said.
Responding to questions about why the agencies can’t provide the public with details about what materials are being transported through the city, Geldart said the agencies are prohibited from sharing that sensitive information with the public.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) asked whether anyone oversees the city’s rail system. Officials with HMESA, the D.C. Department of Fire and EMS and the District Department of Transportation all said they have no inspectors overseeing how CSX handles the transportation of goods, whether there are any security breaches from employees, or whether there are any problems with the rail infrastructure.
“All of that is just out there and no one is minding that?” Cheh asked. “Nobody ever looks at that?
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who hosted the hearing and led the questioning on rail security, asked if the city’s emergency agencies know how often CSX conducts security drills.
Derron T. Hawkins, deputy fire chief of homeland security with D.C. Fire and EMS, said he wasn’t aware of any exercises in the past few years, but he said fire and emergency personnel have been working with CSX on training fire emergency personnel to handle such an incident. In the past, the city has sent 14 fire and EMS personnel to a Colorado facility for specialized training provided by CSX, Hawkins said. But the last time the District sent anyone was in 2009 or 2010, Hawkins said.
Craig Baker, deputy fire chief for the special operations division at the DC Fire and EMS Department, said all fire and EMS personnel have received some level of hazmat response training.
“We are constantly preparing to respond,” he said.
But Cheh asked why there hasn’t been a special drill, such as the exercise DDOT and first responders recently conducted simulating a streetcar derailment on H Street, something that she said would give them a sense of how the agencies would respond to an actual emergency.
“I would hope that out of this (hearing) we will have the various agencies come forward with a more detailed and sensible plan,” Cheh said. “There seem to be a lot of gaps that make me concerned.”
Geldart said although he doesn’t recall doing a rail exercise, HSEMA has done hazmat exercises, and the agency works with other law enforcement agencies and first responders to prepare for emergencies. He said hazardous materials are transported by various means and more are transported on highways, via trucks, than on the railways.
CSX says it rarely transports crude oil through the District and does not carry hazardous substances such as compressed flammable gases and toxic and radioactive materials through the city.
During the hearing, DDOT’s role in overseeing the city’s rail system came into question, with DDOT director Matthew Brown saying the agency lacks authority over the railroads, including setting speed limits for rail, which are generally enforced by the Federal Railroad Administration. Council members also asked why the agency doesn’t have a rail safety office. Brown said the legislation establishing DDOT is silent on the issue of rail, meaning it doesn’t specifically addresses the role of the agency on overseeing the rail system.
The Council could clarify the agency’s authority over rail by amending the Act that established DDOT. In doing so, Brown said, it could establish–and fund– a rail safety office. He said his office doesn’t have rail inspectors as some states do. Virginia, for example, has a division of utility and railroad safety that conducts inspections of railroad facilities, including track and equipment, to ensure safe operation within the Commonwealth.
The hearing was a continuation of one begun Aug. 26 by the D.C. Council looking at the CSX rail tunnel project. Some neighbors of the tunnel, near the Washington Navy Yard, have raised concerns about rail safety and the transportation of hazardous materials through the city.
But some transportation officials say the 110-year-old tunnel has become a bottleneck in the East Coast rail network. CSX officials say rebuilding the tunnel is necessary to remedy growing structural problems and that expanding the tunnel’s capacity is important if it is to handle expected increases in freight transportation on the East Coast.
The project also has spurred debate about rerouting freight rail from the city and the impact of the expansion of freight transportation on passenger rail.
The tunnel proposal is under review by the Federal Highway Administration, and the agency is expected to issue a decision this month that could give CSX a green light to proceed. The rail company would then need to acquire permits from the DDOT to begin construction. DDOT and CSX reached an agreement back in 2010 where the agency committed to issuing CSX the needed permits once the federal review is completed.
Some council members are contemplating whether there is a way they can intervene and further delay the project. Cheh, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, has suggested the possibility of asking the federal government to postpone its final decision until the city conducts a comprehensive rail study that would provide an assessment of all rail service: passenger, commuter and freight. The Council has allocated funding for that study. No decision was made during Monday’s hearing on how the Council would proceed regarding the project or other rail safety concerns that were raised.