I-TEAM: The dangerous chemicals trains are hauling through the Miami Valley

DAYTON — Recent train derailments across Ohio and in the Miami Valley have put new attention on the chemicals being hauled through our local communities.

The I-Team’s lead investigative reporter, John Bedell, shows us what he found being hauled through our communities every day. He also pressed for answers about the pace of safety changes to the rail industry.

All kinds of hazmat roll through the Miami Valley every day on our local railways. Slower to move is safety reform for the train industry. So, News Center 7 asked our federal lawmakers why that’s been the case. And are they doing enough to protect Ohioans?

East Palestine, Ohio, is changed forever after derailed tanker cars spewed flames and toxic chemicals into the air, the ground, and the water.

>> Related Story: East Palestine derailment: Timeline of key events in toxic train disaster

And it’s been discovered that train companies do not have to tell states what is being hauled through our communities because there’s no law that requires it.

That means emergency responders like Gary Rettig and his hazmat teams won’t find out until a derailment happens and the clock is ticking.

“For us identification is the biggest, biggest part of the puzzle, is being able to I.D. the chemical, the product we are dealing with,” Retting said.

Ohio has the fourth-largest rail network in the country. More than 5,1000 miles of active rail crisscrossing a state of more than 11 million people.

Tons of toxic material fly by the property of Chad Bolender who lives in Miamisburg. “You see hazardous material, you know, warning stickers and do wonder what’s actually in that tank,” he said.

News Center 7′s I-Team went to investigate for ourselves, checking product numbers on hazmat placards, and telling what’s inside those containers.

Over the course of four days in Eaton, Miamisburg, and Dayton, we spotted tankers carrying things like unspecified alcohol or ethanol, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, phenol, maleic anhydride, ammonium nitrate, and acrylonitrile.

>> Related Story: Ohio Governor says progress, not ‘fast enough,’ in cleanup following East Palestine train derailment

All of them pose potential risks to the community, environment, and first responders like Billy Ring, who is a retired captain with the Miamisburg Fire Department.

“OK, it looks like it’s somewhat reduced as far as what’s going on at the scene,” Ring said.

He responded to one of the worst derailments in U.S. history in Miamisburg in 1986. A situation that his department trained for just a few weeks earlier.

However, Ring said training only goes so far. If you don’t know what you’re up against.

“The problem is when the trains come off the tracks, the cars roll around. Often you can’t identify a product number for which you can go to your reference,” Ring said.

There are all kinds of federal agencies and forms used to track crashes on our rail system. The feds don’t make it easy to go through any of this stuff and review it. But the I-Team did some heavy lifting and dug through decades of data.

Since 1975 there have been just shy of 2,100 train derailments with hazmat releases. Ohio is in the top five states with those accidents in that time with 94.

Almost 50 years of data and nearly 40 years between Miamisburg and East Palestine’s toxic derailments.

And only now are Ohio’s U.S. senators pushing for changes, including requiring rail companies to notify states what they’re hauling.

>> Related Story: Springfield train derailment: NTSB continues to investigate wheels, estimates damages at $2.6M

U.S. Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio said, “We need to properly give notice to local authorities of when hazardous materials are going through their community.”

U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said, “Unfortunately, it took this crash in East Palestine and then what happened in Springfield, it took this derailment to get people’s attention, including mine.”

J.D. Vance has been in the Senate for just shy of four months. Sherrod Brown has been in Congress for 16 years. So, we asked him about the timing of the proposed rail safety changes.

We asked, “You’ve been in the Senate a long time. Why hasn’t this become law before? Why has this legislation taken so long to happen?” Brown responded, “Well, railroads have been some of the most powerful lobbyists in Congress for 100 years. They’ve had their way with Congress too often. They’ve had their way with regulators.”

In Miamisburg, it’s what people working and living along the tracks, like Bolender and Gerry Comley of Farmersville, say they want to see.

“A train, whatever it’s hauling, it needs to be revealed because the state you know, the politicians, they’re responsible for the safety of the people and somebody should know in the state what they’re hauling,” Comley.

“Yeah, I think more information is always better. And that would just open it up to independent review to make sure that they’re doing the right thing,” Bolender said.

News Center 7′s I-Team reached out to Norfolk Southern for comment. They said they support many aspects of the Railway Safety Act, including their CEO testifying that he supports making it mandatory for rail companies to notify states what hazmat they’re hauling.

There’s also an app the rail industry partners with called “Ask Rail.” It’s optional for first responders. They can look up what hazmat trains are hauling on the app.

Rettig said Dayton Regional Hazmat uses it and several Miami Valley fire chiefs also use the app.