Counties prepare for train derailments

Feb. 27—A Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic vinyl chloride was heading to Johnstown before crashing in East Palestine, Ohio, local authorities said.

"Without a doubt," said Art Martynuska, Cambria County Emergency Management Agency coordinator.

"I don't know the exact route but if it was on the main line some of that stuff would have come right through Johnstown," he said.

As many as 60 trains a day travel through Johnstown and surrounding communities.

The Ohio train would likely have stopped at Conway Yard, a major rail yard owned by Norfolk Southern and located about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Railcars are separated onto other tracks. Trains could travel south through Confluence and through Johnstown en route to Harrisburg and other locations.

Other Cambria County communities on the Norfolk Southern rail line include Cresson Township, East Taylor Township, East Conemaugh Borough, Portage Borough, Portage Township, Gallitzin Borough, Tunnelhill Borough and South Fork Borough.

Emergency responders in Cambria and Somerset counties prepare for such rail emergencies.

"The unfriendly reminder is it can happen here just the same," said Joel Landis, Somerset County Emergency Management Agency director.

"All incidents start and end on the local level," Landis said.

There are 180 miles of track in Somerset County and nearly 200 miles of track in Cambria County. Trains carry commodities and hazardous materials such as petroleum crude oil, propane and combustible liquid, Martynuska said.

"There could be just about anything," Johnstown fire Chief Robert Statler said.

Fire responders and county Hazardous Material teams prepare for train derailments.

"Rail traffic is at an all-time high," Martynuska said.

Training includes dealing with hazmat emergencies.

"The derailment in (East) Palestine, Ohio, we train for that," said Greg Schilling Jr., Cambria County public safety specialist.

When the 911 call comes in, first responders are deployed. County HazMat teams are dispatched. State Department of Environmental Protection emergency personnel are notified.

Hazmat teams must also monitor weather conditions.

"Wind and rain would play a big factor," Schilling said. "We're responsible for response, mitigation, containment, confinement, not the cleanup of hazardous materials."

Rail lines pay for the eventual cleanup. Firefighters might need to evacuate neighborhoods and schools.

"We have evacuation plans with transit and school bus lines," Marynuska said. "If we need mass evacuations, we can do that."

Landis notes the role of first responders is critical during catastrophic events.

"Additional help will take time to get here and the initial response will be crucial to the overall outcome of the event," he said.