If you live or work almost anywhere in Lebanon County, you’re likely to be less than 10 miles from the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, which divide the northern and southern halves of the county.

Twenty-four miles of Norfolk Southern tracks pass through or within a mile of densely populated areas such as Palmyra, Annville, the Lebanon Valley College campus, Lebanon, and Myerstown.

Could a train derailment in Lebanon County result in the release of toxic chemicals, as happened in February on the Norfolk Southern tracks in East Palestine, Ohio?

That possibility, and what to do if the worst happens, is not being ignored, said Gary Verna, deputy director of the Lebanon County Department of Emergency Services (LCDES). LCDES is the arm of the county government responsible for responding to natural and human-made emergencies.

About five years ago, “my predecessor (former LCDES Deputy Director Joe Morales) and I developed a rail plan,” said Verna. “Before that, there wasn’t a countywide plan for train derailments.”

“Our plan covers who we are going to bring into the incident command center, who is going to have control, and how we are going to involve our stakeholders,” Verna said. Stakeholders, according to Verna, are individual municipalities, school districts, fire departments, and first responder agencies.

Verna added the county has an evacuation plan that can be triggered for a variety of emergencies in addition to train derailments.

Local emergency response plans such as Lebanon County’s are great, said Verna, but they all run headlong into a big problem.

Federal “preemption” hampers state and local officials charged with protecting their citizens

Railroads such as Norfolk Southern, which has over 19,000 miles of track in 22 eastern states, are governed by an extensive body of federal law. Under a legal doctrine known as “federal preemption,” any state or local law that conflicts with federal railroad laws can be declared invalid.

This means that local officials have almost no control over the trains passing through the county, and usually have no advance knowledge of what those trains are carrying.

Earlier this month, in response to the East Palestine derailment and toxic chemical release, House Bill 1028 was introduced in Harrisburg. It would have limited train lengths to 8,500 feet (1.6 miles), required at least two-member crews on freight trains, and created a database of hazardous chemicals being transported on railroads.

The bill was defeated, and all three Lebanon County representatives, acknowledging the federal preemption problem, voted “no.”

State Representative Tom Jones (R-98), who represents a small part of Lebanon County, told LancasterOnline.com that HB-1028 was just symbolic. “Since the measures in the bill will be trumped by federal law anyhow, the bill feels like a ‘look, we did something about the Palestine train derailment’ political measure rather than offering solutions.”

Representative Russ Diamond (R-102) told LebTown that “I voted no because railroads are under federal, not state, jurisdiction. If this bill becomes law, I would expect an immediate challenge based on the interstate commerce clause. My opposition to the bill is unrelated to any safety information which may be provided to local authorities, which is secondary to the jurisdiction difficulties.”

Similarly, Representative John Schlegel (R-101) said, “Freight train activity is regulated by the Interstate Commerce Act.  Most freight trains utilize two or more crew members.  Emergency management agencies have the AskRail app, which provides information relative to the items that are on a given train.”

How local responders get derailment notices may be changing

LCDES Director Bob Dowd confirmed his agency uses the AskRail app. “All we need is the car ID number from any car on the train, and we can see the entire train, including the contents of every car, relevant contact information, quantities of commodities, etc.”

But Verna said the AskRail app tells authorities what is already in the county, not what hazardous substances might be on trains before they get here.

“What it does do is give us information regarding what the trains are carrying in real-time,” Verna said. “Norfolk Southern does not give advance warnings for anything they are transporting. The app is for first responders who are dispatched to an incident and need to know what is on the trains immediately.”

According to Verna, they do that by reading placards on individual rail cars once they reach the scene and not before. That puts the burden on already busy first responders to figure out, at the scene, what they may be dealing with.

That may change as a result of the East Palestine disaster.

East Palestine residents and officials couldn’t quickly find out from Norfolk Southern what was in the train cars that derailed and ignited in their town. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a recent public hearing brought the delays to light.

“The questioning revealed major lapses in communication, which left first responders without key information on what the cars contained for an hour to several hours. Norfolk Southern sent its contractor, consulting firm CTEH, the same information through a document known as a ‘train consist’ in about 10 minutes.”

On June 21, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed a new rule that would require all railroads to immediately send the details of hazardous substances on a train as soon as the railroad becomes aware of an incident.

Under the new rule, railroads would be required to electronically “push” notifications to all emergency responders within 10 miles of a derailment.

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Chris Coyle writes primarily on government, the courts, and business. He retired as an attorney at the end of 2018, after concentrating for nearly four decades on civil and criminal litigation and trials. A career highlight was successfully defending a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who was accused,...

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