Dallas County officials concerned about lack of communication over derailment

Published 2:32 pm Friday, January 30, 2009

Dallas County officials want to know why they were not alerted about the derailment of nine box cars on a Meridian & Bigbee train this morning until almost six hours after it occurred.

EMA was not notified because there were no hazardous materials on the train, the derailment did not occur on a major thoroughfare and no injuries occurred, according Don Vincent, an M & B employee on the scene.

DHS/EMA deputy director Rhonda Abbott requested that the county be notified whenever any derailment occurs from now on. She also asked Dallas County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Randy Pugh to submit a formal request to M & B.

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“We’ve got citizens to protect,” Abbott said. “Our concern is public safety.”

Abbott first heard about the derailment when District 4 County Commissioner Larry Nichols called her about 9:30 a.m. Abbott and Nichols rushed to the scene to get a handle on the situation. They also contacted Mayor Gene McHugh, who did not find out about the derailment until about the same time. Although, McHugh did notice a strange odor as he stood outside his house with his dog before the sun rose.

“I smelled diesel fuel about 5:30, but I’m sure that was just the engine sitting there idling,” McHugh said.

After the proper officials were notified, it was business as usual in Orrville. This sleepy, roadside town is no stranger to train derailments. There have been several within a 10-mile length of track over the past few years. Nichols guessed the number to be as high as five.

“We do have concern,” Nichols said. “The citizens of Dallas County are terrified every time they hear about this.”

Abbott said while ambulances, police cars and fire trucks rushing to the scene could cause panic, she would rather both officials and citizens know an accident occurred right away, even if there is no immediate threat to the public.

“A train derailment perks up ears in Dallas County,” Abbot said. “These people in this area are scared. They’re gun shy.”

Nichols acknowledged M & B attempts to maintain the tracks and prevent derailments. Vincent told him on the scene the company spent millions of dollars on the track in 2007. Those millions just are not enough.

“We’re not there yet,” Nichols said.

The derailment occurred just off Highway 22 next to a red, dirt road that runs along the edge of a cow pasture. Boxcars folded up like an accordion, dug out trenches in the gravel and clay, and bowed out the steel rail five feet from the track. This time the boxcars only plowed through dirt. County officials are concerned they might not be so lucky next time.

“We dodged a bullet this time,” Nichols said. “We’re thankful for that.”