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Unique hazmat team in Lake County prepares for derailments like in East Palestine

Nearly 20 fire departments part of county-wide team
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Posted at 6:28 PM, Mar 06, 2023

LAKE COUNTY, Ohio — It’s the unknown on the tracks that has fire crews in one Northeast Ohio county always training for a scene like the one in East Palestine.

“When they derail, even if there’s not a hazardous load, it can be devastating,” Mentor Fire Lt. Brian Bittner said.

The biggest difference, though, is the population size near the tracks in Lake County.

“At night sometimes it wakes you up, it's shaking and it scares you,” Betty Shelton said.

Shelton said she’s used to the noise.

The tracks are just feet from the home she shares with her daughter.

“I often wonder if they would hit the house and explode or something,” Shelton said.

In one month, two Norfolk Southern trains derailed in Ohio. The first was in East Palestine on Feb. 3 and the second was in Springfield on March 4.

The East Palestine train had toxic, cancer-causing chemicals on board.

Wickliffe Fire Chief Jim Powers recalls a fiery derailment in Painesville in October 2007 right behind a neighborhood. He says ethanol was burned off.

“It’s easier to let something burn than it is to let it contaminate the waterways,” Powers said. Powers is part of a county-wide hazmat team.

It’s a FEMA-graded Type One team, one of only 10 in the state of Ohio.

“We have a nuclear plant, a lot of manufacturing and a lot of chemical producers,” Powers said.

There are also a lot of trains.

“I would estimate a train goes through the city maybe every 12 to 15 minutes, so when you do the math on that, that’s over 100 a day,” Powers said.

The difference between East Palestine and Wickliffe is the population size.

“I have 10,000 people within a mile of the tracks here, so that lends to itself a very difficult operation,” Powers said.

In Mentor, about 15,000 people live within a mile of railroad tracks. When you add in people going to businesses, that number can double or even triple.

“There is no good place in almost all of Lake County, but certainly not in the city of Mentor for a train to go off the tracks. Our exposure hazards are going to be a lot greater immediately,” Bittner said.

Minutes before Bittner spoke with News 5 Investigators, we watched as a CSX train went by.

“That was very much just a dry goods bulk type container vehicle stuff,” Bittner said. “We do have all the hazardous chemicals come through here as well, though; regularly there’s a train every 15 or so minutes coming through these tracks.”

That is why Bittner says they train extensively, including the 40 hours for certified hazmat technicians. From there, it goes much more in-depth — not just on derailments, but leaking rail cars.

“They’re not the second-nature type calls, they're the things you have to dig out the big books," he said. "They’re unpredictable, they're very rare; we've just had an uptick in our region."

Derailments like in East Palestine and Springfield become part of the lesson.

“Every incident teaches us something, but those large ones really show you where you might have a shortfall,” Bittner said.

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