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Pittsfield Council Hears Emergency Response Plans for Train Derailment
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
05:19AM / Thursday, May 11, 2023
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — In light of a recent train derailment in Ohio that spread hazardous materials, the City Council heard of Pittsfield's plan for a similar situation if it were to happen.

"We haven't had a train derailment in Pittsfield in a long time. The last one was in Dalton and it happened to be a train car full of refrigerators. That doesn't mean it can't happen," Fire Chief Thomas Sammons said.

"Fortunately, the trains go very slow through Pittsfield because it's an urban environment and then once they get to Dalton they start to go uphill and they continue to head east."

If the unfortunate event were to happen, the initial response would be Car 2, three engines, and one truck company to assess the situation. For a confirmed derailment, the District 5 hazardous materials response team, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and the state Department of Environmental Protection would be contacted immediately.

There would be a parallel response from the Fire department, the railroad, and from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Our initial actions would be to establish a unified command that would be police, fire, medical response, railroad, and a representative from MEMA. MEMA trains extensively in these kinds of emergencies so they are nothing but your friend," Sammons explained.

"Obviously rescue is our No. 1 priority and then we decide whether to evacuate an area or shelter in place and that would depend on a lot of things."

Once the hazardous materials team gets involved, emergency personnel can set up air monitoring stations to determine where hot zones, warm zones, and cold zones are so that priorities can be established. The hazmat trucks also have the ability to do plume modeling to predict the paths and concentrations of airborne contaminants.

Hazardous materials also need to be contained, confined, and diverted into a safe location keeping them out of storm drains, groundwater, and other bodies of water.

If a train car ignites, the plan is to let it burn off in a clean way.

"We don't have enough foam in Berkshire County to try to even put out a railcar fire so all we do is get the peripheral and keep it keep just as small of an area as possible burning," the chief explained.

He said the initial response would be overwhelmed immediately, making a general alarm fire and getting mutual aid from surrounding communities to work 12-hour durations.

Some of the department's resources for such an event include the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's chemical hazard guide, an app for plume and spill modeling, and an app that gives information on specific trains.

"Our planning assumptions would be trains derail anytime in the day or night, the initial response would be overwhelmed and the carrier, which would be CSX, would provide technical and tactical resources to mitigate the release so they're going to be our friends, we've got a good working relationship with them," Sammons said.

"Like I mentioned, there is not enough foam in all of Berkshire County. Most train derailments with ethanol result in at least one train car burning, so that's that's the most recent stat. Of the last 11 train derailments, nine of them resulted in having fires. So it happens."

He added that MEMA has a trained public information officer who would work with the department's PIO to make sure there is factual information circulated.

In February, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, and sparked a great deal of health and safety concerns for the wider area. Ward 1 Councilor Kenneth Warren, who requested the presentation, has received calls from constituents including former Ward 1 City Councilor Bill Barry asking about the city's preparation for such an event.

Warren reported that a MEMA contact told him that District 5 has one of the best regional hazmat teams in the state.

"I think the public needs to know that," he said.

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