The Columbus Dispatch
Norfolk Southern tracks in Hudson worry residents
An estimated 30 trains pass through city daily
Norfolk Southern’s tracks run through Hudson — a diagonal path etched in steel and wood, bisecting the city of 23,000 people.
Trains pass within a stone’s throw of residential neighborhoods in the city’s northwest corner, through Maple Grove Park, traversing southeast toward downtown. After the Hines Hill railroad crossing, the tracks dogleg, passing within less than 2,000 feet of Hudson’s wastewater treatment plant.
After crossing under the Ohio Turnpike, the tracks straighten and arrive downtown. Norfolk Southern’s trains tote their cargo past the Brew Kettle and Yours Truly Hudson. They roll past Peace, Love and Little Donuts as well as Heartwood Coffee Roasters in a cacophony of rattling cars and screaming brakes.
Once out of the city center, they hurtle past subdivisions and parks, passing out of Hudson when they cross Stone Road.
It’s likely that this route was taken by the ill-fated train that derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3, spilling dangerous chemicals in the heart of the village that is home to almost 5,000 people.
While the rate of train derailments has decreased substantially since 2000, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics still recorded more than 1,000 of them in 2021. It’s something happening fairly regularly, escaping national scrutiny until now.
What happened in East Palestine has captured Ohioans attention. According to the Association of American Railroads, Ohio has the third-most total rail miles in the country as of 2020.
Close to home
In the Boston Mills neighborhood, just inside the city, there’s a loopshaped road named Silverberry Lane. At its apex, the homes built along the lane butt up to Norfolk Southern’s lines.
For three years, Heather and Patrick Donahoe, along with their 6-year-old child, have lived in such a home.
In the backyard, a trampoline and a fire ring are surrounded by trees; beyond, Norfolk Southern’s tracks prech upon an embankment. A shaded deck attached to the house overlooks the scene.
“We knew, coming in when we bought the house, that we were going to be close (to trains),” said Patrick.
Patrick estimates 30 trains roll past each day; Heather adds that the cars are often double-stacked with cargo. Sometimes, two trains come by at once — headed in different directions. Patrick’s estimate is plausible. One day last week, an Akron Beacon Journal reporter staked out a section of track passing through Hudson, sitting out back of a resident’s house, counting trains. Over the course of four hours, a total of five trains of varying length and cargo rolled by. They’re easy to hear coming.
The ground rumbles. Maybe there’s a whistle off in the distance, maybe not. All of a sudden, the great behemoth is rolling through; one takes three minutes that feels like an eternity of clattering and screeching. Another caravan, this one much shorter, is there and gone in under a minute.
No matter the length, the speed or the frequency of the trains, the havoc they’ve unleashed in East Palestine and other recent accidents has jarred neighbors along the tracks. A Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ravenna Township on Nov. 1, and another in the southwestern Ohio city of Springfield earlier this month.
How long, Heather wonders aloud, before one derails on the stretch of track running alongside the Donahoes’ Hudson home?
“Those things would literally wipe our house out,” Heather said. “We would instantly be taken out.”
Heather loves where she lives, but she’s concerned about the cargo the trains might be carrying, — a concern felt not only for her family, but for her neighbors as well.
“I’m worried about the environmental impact if we had any kind of a spill,” she said. “We will never know the damage that East Palestine has endured because of all of those chemicals that have been put into the soil, and now are up in the air. I would be so scared for everyone around us if anything like that were to happen close to us.”
Heather worries about the possible effects the East Palestine derailment is having in Hudson. It’s not the water she frets over, however. Most of Summit County, including Hudson, inhabits a different watershed from East Palestine. It’s the air quality occupying her thoughts.
Five railcars worth of vinyl chloride were burned off soon after the crash, releasing a toxic looking black mushroom cloud into the air.
“That affects all of us,” she said. “So, I’m very concerned.”
Heather doesn’t fully trust that regulations already in place will eliminate the risk. There will always be a risk, she said.
She wonders how often trains carting dangerous chemicals trek through their neighborhoods. Is there a better way to transmit such hazardous cargo, one that keeps it out of residential environs, she asks.
“I just really hope that their CEOS and all of their shareholders are not putting profit over safety of children and people living in America,” Heather said. “And I am very concerned that they are so concerned with their bottom line that they are completely blind to the long-lasting effects of all of the chemicals that they could spill into our environment, and affects our children in the long term.”
Hudson officials moved swiftly after the East Palestine disaster to make sure the city has contingencies to monitor the environmental consequences of derailments and other accidents involving hazardous materials.
City Manager Tom Sheridan said Hudson City Council members directed him on Feb. 14 to look into adding air quality and ground water testing into the city’s emergency operations plan (EOP).
Assistant City Manager of Operations Frank Comeriato has been heading up the revision of the emergency operations plan.
At Hudson’s March 8 city council meeting, Sheridan mentioned the plan’s update. It’s regularly updated every two years, but with the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak pushing that schedule back, it’s been nearly five years since the last revision.
The city recognized an immediate need to watch the response to East Palestine and try to learn from it.
“I asked the fire chief at that time to get in touch with the Ohio EPA people that were on the ground, and try to make sure that they’re keeping good notes and that they share those notes with us when they get back,” Sheridan said. The idea is to use that on-the-ground experience to determine what worked and what didn’t — and reinforce Hudson’s plan using that knowledge.
Hudson Fire and EMS Chief Jerry Varnes said the catastrophe in East Palestine hasn’t changed how he approaches his job. The department is proactive and prepared for the possibility of derailments because of the volume of trains passing through the city.