Earthquake at railyards? Training exercise shakes up first responders

News-DemocratJune 16, 2014 

East St. Louis' railyards experienced an earthquake Monday, and four tankers carrying explosive and dangerous materials were damaged -- all staged in a training exercise for first responders.

Police and firefighters from East St. Louis, Edwardsville, Cahokia and St. Clair and Madison counties took part in the training, which aimed to instruct hazmat and emergency workers how to deal with railyard chemical spills.

"We knew it was coming, but we didn't know when," said Cory Heuchert, a hazardous material technician with Madison County. "We had no idea what (chemicals would be involved in the exercise)."

The exercise, part of ongoing training by railroads and emergency personel, comes after high-profile crude-oil spills and concern over transporting oil by pipeline and rail.

Four train cars supplied by Union Pacific were on hand off of 22nd Street in East St. Louis. One training car spewed water in place of propane, a corrosive chemical, a water-reactive material and crude oil.

"Crude oil is dangerous, but there are more dangerous things," said Bill Clossen, assistant chief at East St. Louis Fire Department. He cited chlorine as a hazardous substance that makes its way through the metro-east on train cars more often.

Union Pacific has planned the exercise for about the last three years.

"Earthquake is probably one of the most complicated, because it involves so many agencies," said Union Pacific representative Mark Davis.

Clossen said between 75 and 100 first responders participated in the drill.

"We've had two incidents in 20 years," Clossen said, adding that rail travel remains one of the safest methods of transport.

The training tank car provided by the railroad company had a variety of connections for trainees to practice closing and fixing in an emergency.

While one training rail car was used in the exercise, Davis said in real life chemicals would be "buffered" from one another with non-hazardous train cars.

"Things vibrate open and loose, not closed and tight," said Mark Newton, Union Pacific manager of hazardous materials.

Newton reminded the first-responders during a debriefing that sometimes it is as easy as turning the valve closed to control a leak.

The company has trained about 38,000 first-reponders since 2003 as well as 7,500 contractors or shippers to familiarize them with railroad tank cars, Davis said.

Contact reporter Mary Cooley at or 618-239-2535.

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