A dubious honor: Ohio ranks high in haz-mat spills

Near the CSX rail company's local offices and rail yard in Willard, a major hazardous waste spill occurred in late November, 2013. No injuries were reported, but hundreds of residents were evacuated from their homes during the Thanksgiving holiday season.

In late November 2013, a CSX railroad car carrying the highly flammable chemical styrene monomer derailed near the Main Street overpass in Willard, Ohio, forcing hundreds of residents to be evacuated from their homes in the middle of the night.

More than 30,000 gallons of styrene monomer leaked into nearby soil from the tank of a DOT-111 rail car, an older, so-called “legacy” car that has come under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Transportation because of its safety record.

Officials in Willard, about 65 miles southwest of Cleveland, said the town was lucky. Because the temperature was well below the combustible level for styrene monomer,  there was no explosion and no one was injured. According to Brian Humphress, Willard’s city manager, CSX, state and federal agencies and local first responders all reacted quickly to clean up the spill and get residents safely back in their homes.

The Federal Railroad Administration has yet to release the results of its investigation into what caused the accident or the spill, but the incident is a reminder that Ohio’s track record is less than stellar when it comes to hazardous waste incidents.

In fact, Ohio has been at or near the top of state rankings for the number of hazardous waste incidents for the last 40 years. The good news is that the state is working its way down that list of dubious distinction.

According to data compiled for Eye on Ohio by the Investigative News Network and Investigative Reporters and Editors, more than 41,000 incidents – spills and releases resulting from air, water, highway, water and rail transport –  were reported to regulatory agencies going back to 1971.  Since the beginning of 2000, more than 18,000 incidents have been recorded.

Between 2000 and 2010, Ohio ranked first among all 50 states in reported incidents, but since then, it’s dropped to fourth place in the numbers reported.

Within Ohio, the Columbus area recorded more spills than other major urban areas, with 65 occurring since 1970 and 33 since 2000; it ranked 14th nationally in number of incidents since 1970.  Cincinnati had the second highest number of incidents with 53 since 1970 and 17 since 2000, followed closely by Cleveland with 52 incidents since 1970 and 10 since 2000.

Since 2000, Ohio has recorded 305 serious hazardous incidents,  defined as those causing fatalities or serious injury, major evacuations, transportation closures, release of radioactive material or large quantities of pollutants or hazardous materials. Serious incidents were 1.7 percent of the total incidents, which is below the national average 3.1 percent.

Though the percentage of serious incidents has been low,  the overall cost to the state has been high, and four people have lost their lives because of contact with hazardous materials during accidents.

The U.S. DOT in early May issued emergency orders related to the shipment of crude oil; it said that although the overall number of train derailments and accidents have declined in recent years,  the shipment of crude oil has increased dramatically because of the rapid rise in domestic oil production. Among the department’s recommendations was the use of newer, more crash-resistant rail cars – rather than the DOT-111 when shipping hazardous materials such as crude oil.

Here’s what the data shows:

On behalf of Eye on Ohio, the Investigative News Network has analyzed hazardous material incidents in Ohio between 2000 and 2013.  INN provided data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

How many incidents have occurred?

18,356

Serious incidents:

305 (1.7 percent)

An incident is considered serious if fatalities or serious injuries occur as result of a hazardous material release, an evacuation of 25 more people occur, a major transportation artery is closed, radioactive materials are released, or if spills exceed certain pounds or gallons of pollutants or hazardous materials.

Evacuations

7,395 people evacuated in 447 incidents

Mode of transportation

Highway: 14,580          Rail: 437       Air: 3,337        Water: 2

Costs since 2000 (damages, lost material, remediation and response)

$38,934,592

There have been four fatalities due to hazardous materials exposure and 108 injuries related to hazardous materials incidents since 2000.

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