OMAHA, Neb. -- Union Pacific, the linchpin of the world's largest railyard in Nebraska, finds itself under scrutiny as federal inspectors uncover a litany of defects in its locomotives and railcars. Despite two inspections revealing hundreds of issues, the investigations fail to shed light on the mysterious explosion of a shipping container carrying toxic acid within the expansive Bailey Yard in North Platte. The incident, which occurred on September 14 in a remote section of the yard, remains shrouded in uncertainty, with investigators grappling to pinpoint the cause.
Located approximately 250 miles west of Omaha, Bailey Yard witnessed a contained blast, prompting heightened concerns about the decision-making process that led to the loading of plastic barrels filled with perchloric acid. Astonishingly, these barrels were housed inside a shipping container with a wooden floor and potentially resting on wooden pallets, despite the well-known reactivity of perchloric acid with organic materials. Andy Foust, a Nebraska leader of the largest rail union representing workers involved in switching these railcars just before the explosion, emphasized the volatility of perchloric acid when in contact with organic materials, asserting, "that car was doomed from the day it was loaded."
The incident not only spotlighted potential issues within the vast railyard but also underscored the nationwide reliance on all stakeholders in the transportation of hazardous materials to exercise utmost caution. The Nebraska explosion revealed the challenges of identifying hidden problems before they escalate into catastrophic accidents. Unfortunately, certain details surrounding the explosion may remain forever elusive, as the shipping container containing the acid was annihilated.
Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, shed light on the catalyst, explaining that "the leaked acid reacted with the wooden floor of the intermodal container, and any other organic material within the container (i.e., pallets)." The resulting explosion sent shrapnel hurtling up to 600 feet away, prompting the evacuation of everyone within a mile radius outside the railyard. Following the initial explosion, a second metal shipping container, believed to contain memory foam, collapsed onto the scene and ignited, but thankfully, no other cars caught fire.
Speaking to rail labor leaders in Nebraska, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasized the potential severity of the explosion, noting that it could have garnered national attention had external factors aligned differently. The incident serves as a stark reminder of the unpredictable nature of hazardous material transport and the critical importance of rigorous safety measures in preventing calamities that could reverberate across the nation.
The February derailment and subsequent incidents thrust railroad safety into the spotlight, prompting both Congress and regulatory bodies to propose reforms, although progress on these initiatives has been largely sluggish. According to Foust, Union Pacific (UP) did not evacuate the railyard following the derailment, and while nearby workers autonomously left the area, most within the railyard continued their tasks. Foust anticipates a shift in this approach, revealing that UP is in the process of revising its emergency response plan.
Criticism arose as a significant portion of the yard remained uninformed about the unfolding situation, continuing their duties without awareness. Foust, engaged in discussions with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) inspectors, the railroad, and first responders due to his role with the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division union, emphasized the need for improved communication and response protocols.
Railroad officials defended their decision at the time, asserting that the wind directed smoke away from the facility, and the sheer width of the railyard—stretching up to eight miles—ensured that most UP workers remained at a safe distance. Despite the explosion, the method of loading 56 barrels of acid did not appear to violate any regulations, raising concerns about the potential persistence of such shipping methods.
A spokesperson from the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration clarified that while regulations prohibit any leakage from a package, they do not specify the materials onto which drums are loaded. Shippers are obligated to take precautions when loading hazardous materials, including preventing plastic drums from tipping over. The drums themselves must undergo extensive testing. Unfortunately, in this instance, investigators couldn't ascertain the loading precautions taken, as the container was destroyed in the explosion.
The perchloric acid involved, utilized in explosives and certain industrial processes, originated from an undisclosed Ohio-based company. Norfolk Southern initially transported the acid, subsequently transferring responsibility to Union Pacific. Both railroads refrained from commenting on the explosion, citing the ongoing investigation.
Given the timing of the explosion, indications point to the likelihood that the leak occurred within UP's railyard. While railroads inspect railcars for mechanical issues or signs of tampering before picking them up, they rely on shippers to appropriately pack hazardous materials. Dennis Thompson, North Platte Fire Chief who led the response to the explosion, stressed the importance of trusting shippers to adhere to safe packaging practices to prevent potential issues downstream.
Thompson lauded the efficiency of the emergency response, attributing its success to favorable weather conditions and the strategic location. The railroad promptly informed him of the situation within 25 minutes of the incident, offering crucial insights into the unfolding crisis. However, the lead-up to the explosion in July and August saw inspections at the railyard revealing a troubling trend. The head of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) penned a letter to Union Pacific's CEO, underscoring that the rate of defects discovered was twice the national average.
In the aftermath of the September explosion, inspectors returned for a follow-up investigation, unearthing over 500 additional problems. Union Pacific's CEO, Jim Vena, acknowledged and welcomed the scrutiny from the regulatory agency. Vena emphasized the industry's overall improvement in safety over time, but he acknowledged the persistence of challenges. Despite investments in technology and personnel, last year witnessed over 1,000 derailments, a stark reminder of the potential catastrophic consequences, as exemplified by the East Palestine derailment involving hazardous materials.
Taking the helm as CEO in August, Vena articulated a commitment to further improvements, urging the Union Pacific team to strive for excellence. He pledged investments in technology and human resources to bolster safety measures. Despite the challenges, Federal Railroad Administration regulators overseeing the inspectors expressed a measured perspective. Charlie King, head of the agency's Office of Railroad Infrastructure and Mechanical, downplayed concerns, noting that violations are not uncommon during inspections. King emphasized that no systematic issues indicating unsafe equipment operation endangering the public were found during the investigation. While acknowledging room for improvement, the regulators expressed confidence in Union Pacific's commitment to enhancing safety measures.
In conclusion, the aftermath of the railyard explosion in North Platte, Nebraska, has cast a spotlight on critical issues surrounding railroad safety and the transportation of hazardous materials. The incident, occurring in the wake of inspections revealing an alarming rate of defects at Union Pacific's expansive railyard, prompted heightened scrutiny from Congress and regulators. While the emergency response to the explosion was deemed effective, concerns linger over the handling of hazardous materials and the need for enhanced communication protocols within the railyard.
Union Pacific's CEO, Jim Vena, acknowledged the challenges and welcomed the scrutiny, pledging a commitment to further improvements. Despite industry-wide advancements in safety, the persisting occurrence of derailments, exemplified by the East Palestine incident, underscores the potential for disastrous consequences. Vena's call for increased investments in technology and personnel signals a proactive approach to addressing safety concerns.
Federal Railroad Administration regulators, overseeing inspections, maintained a balanced perspective, noting that violations are common during assessments. Importantly, they found no evidence of systematic issues suggesting the operation of unsafe equipment that would jeopardize public safety. While acknowledging the need for ongoing improvement, regulators expressed confidence in Union Pacific's dedication to enhancing safety measures.
As the railroad industry navigates these challenges, the incident serves as a stark reminder of the delicate balance between efficiency and safety in the transportation of hazardous materials. The ongoing dialogue between regulators, industry leaders, and labor representatives remains crucial in fostering a culture of continuous improvement and ensuring the highest standards of safety across the nation's rail network.