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Preparation helps Ripley train accident cleanup go smoothly

March 17, 2016
By Nicole Gugino ( , Westfield Republican

RIPLEY - Preparation ahead of time meant a good result for the response to the train derailment and hazardous materials spill March 2. Since that time almost everything is back to normal in the town of Ripley.

The 16-car derailment and ethanol spill led to the evacuation of 50 households for two days while the scene was cleaned up and the tracks repaired.

County Hazmat Coordinator Dan Imfeld said he was on the scene daily until the two ethanol tanks and one propane tank were declared "cleaned and purged" on March 4.

Article Photos

Submitted Photos
Firefighters use the foam trailer to prevent spilled hazardous materials from igniting after a train derailed in Ripley March 2.

The county emergency services department has been checking in on the progress regularly and is also using the incident as a way to improve future responses.

"We are working on a post incident review so that we can learn from the incident in terms of what went well and what in some cases we could improve on," County Emergency Services Director Julius Leone explained.

Both county and the town officials had this situation fresh in their minds when the derailment occurred.

"All the things that we've talked about for the last six months to a year really applied to this incident because whether it was crude oil or ethanol, or whatever the product was, it's the same principle, the same way we're going to approach it. So, it really paid off with big dividends," Leone said.

Imfeld said this was the first time any agency in the state has used its state-issued foam trailer.

"Literally we got our trailer at the end of January and did training in February and then deployed it. All the trailers were delivered within the last six months and we are the first to use it," he said.

The foam is used to decrease the flammability of liquids like ethanol by blanketing the spill and smothering fumes that can catch fire. Chautauqua County is part of the state Foam Task Force along with 19 other counties. Olean's trailer was also brought in to help in this incident.

The town had just been discussing its annual emergency preparedness plan when one of the situations they discussed became a reality.

"Ironically enough, Bob (McIntosh, town councilman and emergency response plan liaison) and I, ... the week before the train incident, we were talking about what happens if a train derails and you got a chemical spill? I don't know what you call it; premonition, dumb luck. It was in our thought process ahead of that," Supervisor Doug Bowen said.

The immediate work of cleaning up the ethanol spill and repairing the track were done by March 4, according to officials.

"When the derailment happened, the train was traveling east on the main line, but parallel to the main line was a siding track. ... A siding track is a track that will run parallel for a period of time to the main line. When the derailment happened, both the siding line and the main line were damaged. On March 10, Norfolk Southern restored the siding and its connection to the main line. So, we were able to move trains down the siding while still having to repair and put back into service the main line. On March 11, the main line came back on. Trains are moving through there at 25 miles per hour right now and we are working to restore the line back to its normal 50 miles an hour," Norfolk Southern spokesperson David Pidgeon explained.

Imfeld explained the final step in cleaning up the ethanol happened March 11.

"(The Department of Environmental Conservation) has been there everyday from their Buffalo office. They have monitored the remediation of the soils and made sure that none of the ethanol traveled offsite. That has all been completed and this Friday they (put) on what they call a microblaze. It's a bioremediation product and it will biodegrade any residual ethanol in the soils. They basically scoop up what they can find and if there's any left, it's a microbe that eats the ethanol, so it will totally get rid of the ethanol where there may be any residue in the soils," he added.

Bowen said life is nearly back to normal in Ripley with the exception of 12 remaining rail cars and the Shaver Road rail crossing being closed until the signal is fixed.

"(The rail cars are) probably the biggest reason I haven't lifted the state of emergency declaration yet. It still gives me authority to control the scene where needed and you don't want anybody trying to climb the darn things and falling off and getting hurt so things are patrolled to keep people off," he said.

Pidgeon said the because of the size and need to make time in the railway schedule, the cars' removal will take some time. He also echoed Bowen in asking the community to steer clear of the scene.

"Removing the cars from the scene will take some time. You are dealing with very large pieces of industrial machinery and the only way to be able to remove those from the area are to bring in other rail cars. ... We want people to stay safe and we hope that parents will have a conversation with their children and that the community can be aware that it is dangerous to climb on those rail cars and we want to encourage folks to please stay back and not to trespass," he added.

Bowen said the declaration of emergency will expire automatically after 30 days. He also thanked all the responding agencies from New York and Pennsylvania for their assistance.

Imfeld also complimented the responding agencies and especially the Ripley Fire Department as well as the residents for their cooperation.

"We put them out of their homes in some cases for two full days. In a lot of places people would be angry, wanting to get back into their homes and these people were out finding some place to go make food and bake cookies and bring them to us. So the response of the citizens in following the directives and their appreciation was really heartfelt and really warming for any of those that responded," he said.

Pidgeon said the derailment is still under investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration and state Department of Transportation.

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