INVESTIGATES: Toxic trains hauling dangerous, flammable material through Jacksonville
Action News Jax investigative reporter Emily Turner surveyed trains traveling through Jacksonville and found highly toxic, dangerous, and flammable contents.
Trains hauling toxic material pass by William Stewart’s San Jose neighborhood.
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“It’s kind of crazy,” he said, “We’ll hear them just make a huge sound, shake the house.”
But after seeing the horrifying images from East Palestine, Ohio, and the derailment there, he became much more worried about what’s moving through his neighborhood.
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“It’s very concerning. Yeah. And it’s actually a question that I wanted to know more about,” Stewart said.
Jacksonville’s biggest rail companies include CSX, Florida East Coast Railway, and Norfolk Southern. All three declined to tell us about the cargo they carry. They are not required to, but federal law does require signage on each tanker to warn what kind of chemical is inside.
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So, Action News Jax surveyed rail yards and watched train tracks across town. We decoded the contents of what’s moving through our area that could cause a problem.
Tankers on the Northside:
Potassium hydroxide or corrosive lye
Sodium hypochlorite, or bleach
Tankers near U.S. 1 in St Johns County:
Isohexane - a flammable solvent
Ethanol - a highly flammable substance that is toxic if inhaled
There are numerous tankers filled with ethanol camped in the rail yard off Philips Highway next to Stewart’s house.
“If something were to blow up or if there was any kind of leak, we would be directly affected for sure,” Stewart said.
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Jacksonville Fire Rescue Chief Michael Lesniak said a derailment like the one in Ohio is a very real possibility.
“Make no mistake about it, with the amount of product that we get through the city, an incident like that could easily happen here,” he said.
Lesniak said the trains that come through the city carry highly dangerous and sometimes radioactive contents.
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“We know that there’s ethanol, ammonia, chlorine, and just a ton of other hazardous materials that move through Jacksonville whether it’s by rail or highway,” he said.
That is because Jacksonville is a logistics hub thanks to the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 95, a port and four rail companies. That is why the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department was the first in the country to create a permanent hazmat team.
The teams prepare 24/7 at two stations: 7 & 21. Both are near rail yards.
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Duval County leads the state in train accidents, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Since 1975, there have been 79 train accidents in six of our local counties. All the trains were carrying hazardous materials. Seven of them released at least some of their toxic load. Two were in Columbia County and five were in Duval County. Here’s the total county-by-county breakdown:
St. Johns: 4
One of those crashes happened in February 2014. A Norfolk Southern train derailed near the St. Johns River. It is the same company responsible for the East Palestine derailment.
It triggered an evacuation of 200 people downtown while blocking part of Prudential Drive during the morning rush hour. Five of its eighty cars derailed. One of them released highly flammable ethanol. That’s the same chemical that burned for more than 14 hours in Minnesota after a train derailed in March 2023.
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It is the very same chemical Stewart is worried about.
“It’s very scary,” Stewart said. “And the fact that you’re here is kind of letting us know everything.”
We also checked the numbers for our Southeast Georgia counties. There have been 153 total accidents since 1975. All of the trains carried hazardous materials. It is much higher than our Florida counties because CSX has a major rail yard in Waycross in Ware County. Out of the 153 accidents, only four of them leaked their toxic content. Here’s the county-by-county breakdown:
More than a month after we initially reached out, CSX sent this statement thirty minutes before the story aired:
“At CSX, safety is our number one priority. It’s a commitment we make to our employees, our customers, and the communities through which we operate. CSX’s approach to delivering our customer’s goods safely is holistic, focusing on infrastructure and equipment investment, training and operational improvements, technology deployment, and community outreach and preparedness. Freight rail remains the safest and most environmentally friendly way to transport essential hazardous materials, with a 99.9% success rate and preferable to transporting these commodities via highways.
“While safety is something we never stop working to improve, CSX has led the freight rail industry with the fewest FRA reportable train accidents and lowest average FRA reportable injury rate since 2019. For security reasons, CSX does not disclose how and where it transports sensitive materials to the public. CSX complies with Federal law concerning rail security and emergency preparedness, working with Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC), county and state Emergency Management agencies to ensure they have a comprehensive list of hazardous commodities transported in their communities so that first responders are prepared in the extremely rare case of a hazmat incident. We work closely with first responders across our network and regulatory agencies to ensure proper planning and safety protocols are followed to protect our communities, employees, and customers. In 2022, CSX conducted 40 training events totaling over 2,900 hours of educating 3,609 first responders, contractors, and local government officials across our network.
“You can find information about the percentage of hazardous materials transported by CSX in Florida at Hazardous Materials - CSX.com. You can find further information about CSX.”
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