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After a CSX train derailed in D.C. on Sunday, sodium hydroxide and small amounts of ethanol leaked into the ground near Ninth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE. Now, some residents and environmentalists are wondering if it could happen again—and if spills could be worse.

Federal officials investigating the incident—which resulted in the temporary closure of a segment of Metro’s Red Line and ongoing disruptions to certain MARC and Amtrak routes—have not publicly said yet what was behind the early morning derailment of 16 cars (10 were empty, one contained scrap steel, and five were tanks). But as clean-up continues, certain locals who live near CSX-owned tracks say they’re worried that similar derailments involving hazardous materials could occur, putting public safety at risk.

Part of the concern, they say, comes from not knowing exactly what substances are inside freight cars, as that information isn’t fully disclosed by carriers.

“A potential derailment of hazardous material is a serious concern for the neighborhood,” says Meredith Fascett, an ANC commissioner who serves an area of Near Southeast by the soon-to-be expanded Virginia Avenue Tunnel. A group of residents, led by DCSafeRail, opposed the widening of the tunnel due to concerns about potential safety and environmental risks.

“I think the reality of a derailment is proven by yesterday,” Fascett says. “I’d like to see a real frank assessment: If it were to have been worse, how would [CSX and first responders] have amplified [their response]?”

No one was injured during the derailment and no evacuations were ordered. Officials noted yesterday that they had not discovered any adverse effects on water or air quality near the spill.

Monte Edwards is a member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City who led an ultimately fruitless lawsuit against CSX’s expansion of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel on behalf of the group. He says it’s fortunate that the liquid chemicals didn’t flood a Metro station on Sunday. Edwards, who lives near Union Station, adds that there are at least a dozen spots in Southwest where that could happen, near elevated CSX rails.

“I’m reluctant to say any derailment is lucky,” he explains. “But we do not know what is on the trains coming through. We have tried to get that information” through litigation, but were unsuccessful.

Asked to comment on such concerns, CSX said in a statement that it “compl[ies] with all federal regulations” germane to transporting hazardous materials. The company does not move specific types of hazmat through the District, including “toxic by inhalation/poison by inhalation products, certain classes of explosives, and other materials.” Still, “CSX does move empty rail cars that previously contained high-hazard materials through the District.”

Fred Millar, a rail safety expert, recalls that CSX fought against a D.C. rerouting law about a decade ago that would have banned the transport of hazardous materials through the District. In the wake of 9/11, he explains, residents were worried about the risk of a terrorist attack targeting a substance like chlorine gas or crude oil. Millar says that American railroad companies have a strong congressional lobby that has in effect limited disclosure requirements for their clients.

“The railroads are utterly reckless,” he says. “They’re imposing risks on people and keeping it in the dark… It’s impossible to tell if they’re prioritizing safety or not. What are their worst-case scenarios?”

“Any of these cars [on Sunday] could have breached in a massive way instead of having these slow leaks,” Millar adds. “In a derailment, the crush forces are enormous. If [the cars] had crashed into a viaduct or another rail track, those rail cars puncture. These rail cars are not made out of kryptonite or something.”

The Federal Rail Administration is investigating Sunday’s derailment. As for local officials, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said she would contact CSX for a meeting. And during an interview on NewsTalk this morning, Mayor Muriel Bowser said she would be keeping an eye on the company.

“We have freight that runs through the city so we know that on any given line there could be any number of materials,” she explained. “We’re going to find out how they respond to this particular incident.”

You can read CSX’s full statement below:

CSX places the highest priority on safety and the safe transportation of hazardous materials.  The company’s processes for hazardous materials transportation comply with all federal regulations, including those of the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security.

Across the industry, movements of hazardous materials are routed in accordance with the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, an analytical tool developed in coordination with the federal government, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Dept. of Transportation Pipeline and  Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and other railroads, that takes into account 27 factors about potential routes. This routing tool assigns weighting to such factors as distance between shipping points, high threat urban areas traversed, and certain iconic locations, along with more than 20 other safety and security considerations.

Consistent with the DOT’s routing tool, CSX does not move certain categories of hazardous materials through the District, including the Virginia Avenue Tunnel. Those materials include toxic by inhalation/poison by inhalation products, certain classes of explosives and other marerials.  CSX does move empty rail cars that previously contained high-hazard materials through the District.

DOT assesses CSX’s hazardous materials routes and conducts reviews and audits. Those audits have confirmed that CSX is in compliance with its shipments of hazardous materials.

CSX’s commitment to safety is built on a foundation of significant investment in the maintenance and improvement of its infrastructure and equipment, the deployment of technology to monitor and prevent accidents, and training of its employees at its Railroad Education and Development Institute along with in-service training.

In addition, CSX regularly conducts training with first responders to ensure the highest level of coordination and familiarity with railroad equipment and the hazardous materials carried. Those hazardous materials are key inputs for many manufacturing processes and consumer goods, and CSX complies with its common carrier obligation to move any freight tendered in a safe rail car.

Photo via D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services