Southeast Missouri State University student publication

The Ohio train derailment is a cautionary tale for Cape Girardeau

Monday, March 6, 2023
The Emergency Response Guidebook used by Cape Girardeau first responders and emergency planners, which is updated every four years. The guidebook contains information about commonly encountered hazardous materials and chemicals and how to identify them.
Photo by Lizzy Stock

Emergencies and disasters are inevitable, and emergency preparation teams across Cape County used a recent disaster in Ohio as a point of reflection and lesson on emergency preparation.

On Feb. 3, a train containing dangerous chemicals crashed in East Palestine, Ohio, killing nearly 45,000 animals, according to an article by BBC, and endangering the health of countless people. According to the NTSB’s preliminary report, over 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride were on the train at the time of derailment. This chemical entering the air and water posed the primary safety risk, which is why residents and others in close proximity to the chemical were evacuated.

Vinyl chloride is a skin and lung irritant and may cause an increased risk of cancer and other health issues from long-term exposure. SEMO professor and Director of Environmental Sciences John Kramer said the vinyl chloride was burned in order to avoid an explosion, however, its airborne remains will travel through the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys and most likely leak into the Mississippi River.

Kramer said the effects of the chemical will be the worst for people closest to the spill, and is not worried about any harmful effects for people in the Cape Girardeau region.

“Chlorine is a huge irritant, so think about people who have colds, or COVID, or any irritation there with asthma,” Kramer said.

The colder temperatures will help keep the vinyl chloride from spreading as far in the air as it would in the summer, Kramer said, but even then, its deposition into the environment will affect everything in the surrounding ecosystem from trees to fish to people.

Kramer said the effects of the vinyl chloride won’t be around forever, but the long-term impact is only just starting to emerge.

“We’re just now starting to see people [in Ohio] who are coming to get care because their health is, for them, getting a little worse. I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg on that,” Kramer said.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said the incident was “100% preventable” during a news conference on Thursday, Feb. 23.

Mark Winkler, the Director of the Cape Girardeau County Office of Emergency Management (OEM), specializes in working to prevent similar situations from happening, and managing them more efficiently.

OEM functions as a coordinating agency that brings in the personnel and equipment necessary to help control an emergency situation. Winkler said the initial emergency response team, usually a fire department, calls the OEM and asks for assistance that may range from supplies to additional personnel with a specific proficiency.

In his more than 32 years in emergency management, Winkler said the number of major train incidents has been relatively minor, since train operators are so vigilant about safety.

One of the OEM’s current projects is equipping a mobile communications van to handle communications with the various agencies involved in an emergency response situation.

Winkler said the best way to prepare for emergencies is to practice possible scenarios in order to see what gaps in response need to be filled.

Winkler said simulating emergency response scenarios is the best way to identify gaps in response capabilities. The OEM recently simulated a multi-car crash, and he said a natural disaster simulation may occur next fall.

“Whether it be communications, whether it be setting up a staging area for incoming equipment, whether it be setting up a triage more efficiently for the injured and the walking wounded,” Winkler said. “We all look at ourselves as a whole and how we come together for a response.”

Cape Girardeau county is part of an eight-county local emergency planning district called the Local Emergency Planning District (LEPD), and the OEM bounces ideas and needs off of other counties. The LEPD was founded after a gas leak in Bhopal, India, killed thousands in 1984 and caused a nation-wide reassessment of HAZMAT training in America.

Deputy Director for Emergency Management Sam Herndon said the planning district’s main focus is on training, and events like the Ohio train derailment start conversations about how emergency responders can better handle similar situations.

JoJo Stewart, the captain of the Cape Girardeau Fire Department and the Assistant Emergency Director in the City of Cape, also helps coordinate emergency management within Cape County.

Stewart said a group of Homeland Security Response Team technicians based in Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Sikeston is intended to be mobilized within a day of a train-related incident in the region. Team members are trained to assist in making decisions related to evacuation, spill containment and mitigating harm.

“We have a whole team of people that would be instantly here, unlike some locations that would take awhile because they don’t have the capabilities that we do,” Stewart said.

Winkler said political leadership in the area is progressive about emergency preparation.

“They are proactive, they lean forward, they want to help the citizens of Cape Girardeau County in any and all ways,” he said. “They’ve publicly stated that we want to be a regional leader in emergency management for Southeast Missouri. They’re adamant about their position.”

Winkler said the best kind of emergency response is emergency preparedness.

“Emergency management is cyclical. Whenever there’s a disaster, everyone wants to know everything about it, they want to do whatever they can to help themselves. But whenever the cycle goes back down, there’s no tornados, there’s no flooding, there’s no HAZMAT incidents, what's the first thing that goes out of their mind? Preparedness,” Winkler said.

“We’re fortunate enough in this region that we have a lot of training props that they can go out and simulate all these incidents, from spills to leaks. We’re working on trying to obtain a train car prop, so we can work on if there was a train car leak, how to go in there and stop that from leaking out,” Herndon said.

From the train operators to the OEM to the Homeland Security Response Team to the first responders to the assortment of professionals and first responders involved in emergency response, there is a plethora of people working hard behind the scenes every day to keep Cape safe.

For more information about emergency management in Cape County, visit the Cape County Office of Emergency Management webpage.