Two CSX freight trains derailments in Tennessee during the first week of July 2015 have raised new questions about the safety of chemicals and fuels carried by rail. While neither incident caused a loss of life or widespread injuries, the negative environmental impacts and deleterious health effects may be long lasting.
The earlier derailment near Maryville on July 2 was the more serious. Tanker cars filled with a flammable and toxic liquid called acrylonitrile went off the rails, ruptured and caught fire. More than 5,000 people got evacuated from their homes, and several people went to hospitals complaining of breathing problems. While no one appears to have suffered severe inhalational injuries, the chemical fumes and smoke may have inflicted permanent damage to some people's lungs and windpipes.
Additionally, state and federal environmental officials determined that dangerous amounts of acrylonitrile and other hazardous materials remained in creeks and fields near the crash scene. Residents have been warned, but it is unclear how long the contaminated water and soil may endanger people's health.
That wreck was followed on July 7 by the derailment of several CSX rail cars in South Nashville. Plastic pellets got spilled, and fuel and oil had to be cleaned up to protect people and the environment.
My Virginia law firm colleagues and I have paid close attention to both of these derailments because we have nearly 70 years of combined experience representing railroad workers and members of the public who developed cancer and other deadly illnesses after becoming exposed to toxic fumes and poisonous materials. One such case involving the death of a longtime CSX brakeman who breathed diesel smoke and particulates in Knoxville rail yards for decades has taken years to resolve. The rail company has tried to avoid liability for failing to protect the health of its employee by arguing that he smoked cigarettes, but no court has accepted that excuse. In fact, the Tennessee Supreme Court in July 2015 affirmed previous decisions that CSX was negligent and responsible for exposing the worker to radioactive plutonium and uranium, asbestos and diesel fumes. In doin so, the states highest court ordered a new trial to determine the damages the railroad must pay for causing the man's lung cancer, which led to his death within 4.5 years.
Film footage of smashed rail cars and locomotives engulfed in flames make news broadcasts in the hours and days following derailment, but the worst damage done by such wrecks can remain hidden for far longer. Chemical spills, toxic plumes, and even the release of radioactivity and asbestos do not always show up on video, but they can all prove deadly. And as our work on behalf of the brakeman who succumbed to a job-related cancer shows, everyday exposures to those hazards can also result in death. Railroad operators must do all they can to limit releases of hazardous materials in all situations.