Hazardous materials (hazmat) are substances in quantities and forms that pose a reasonable risk to health, property or the environment. They are a fact of life in Houston. From the ship channel to the refineries, from Galveston to the industrial factories all over the area, the Union Pacific Railroad is the largest handler and shipper of hazmat in the greater Houston area.
Trains full of hazmat flow into, out of and through the city 24 hours a day in tank cars, boxcars, flatcars and gondolas both open and covered. They go through every community where a railroad runs. Handling them safely and being ready when things go wrong is a major mission of the Union Pacific Railroad and every other railroad serving Houston.
On Jan. 8, Union Pacific Hazardous Materials Emergency Manager for Houston and Southeast Texas Tyler Parker described that mission to attendees at the Community Response Task Force (CRTF) meeting.
“A little bit about our system. We were born in 1872 by President Lincoln. We’ve been at it for a little over 150 years now and we operate in 23 states,” Parker said.
He described the Union Pacific route system as going as far to the east as Chicago in the north and New Orleans in the south and to most points west except in North and South Dakota.
“For hazardous materials, we have 1.5 million hazmat shipments [annually],” Parker said, which translates into 837,000 loads of railcars loaded with those shipments.
He pointed out that 2,000 of those loads are the “residue” left in the emptied cars before they are cleaned for use to carry additional shipments.
Residue can equate to a couple hundred gallons in the bottom of a tank car. The cars are called “empties” when they are cleaned and purged.
Parker said 99.9% of hazmat shipments are handled without incident.
“We are the safest way above ground to handle hazardous material. The Union Pacific is the largest shipper of hazmat in the United States. Last year, we had 159 releases on the Union Pacific Railroad and 148 were NARs, that’s nonactive releases where customer X loads their car and does not button the car up as well as they should,” Parker said.
He compared it to a truck going down the highway with a valve closed and leaking fluid out on the highway. He pointed out that the remaining 11 releases were accidental, caused by unexpected accidents such as derailments and collisions.
The hazmat mission is broken up into four major parts. The first is preparedness and inspection.
- The shippers own or lease their own tank cars. They do the actual loading and unloading and are responsible for the condition of the cars. The Union Pacific inspects them and their practices.
“We physically go out and inspect those cars,” Parker said, and described the teams that perform those inspections all over the Union Pacific system.
Preparedness not only means planning for any contingencies or disasters such as derailments and hurricane planning, but it also includes training of both the Union Pacific workforce and the employees of the customers who own and load the cars.
- The second mission objective is prevention and is closely tied to and included with the functions of preparedness. The training programs are all organized to instill the practices of prevention of the various hazmat risks, depending on the type of materials involved.
- The third objective is response, the importance of good communications and coordination among all involved agencies when a major hazmat incident occurs. This includes local police, fire departments, the public, the press and the local emergency planning offices.
- The fourth objective is recovery and includes planning and having the resources needed for a safe recovery of hazmat releases.
Regarding both response and recovery, Parker emphasized the importance of good communications both within the company and with all members of the community.
“It’s all about communication with us,” he said.