State and public kept in the dark about 11 billion pounds of chemicals carried by rail in South Dakota each year

South Dakota News WatchMarch 23, 2023News
photo courtesy Sioux Falls Argus LeaderSix box cars carrying grain derailed under the 10th Street Bridge in downtown Sioux Falls in March 2018, an accident caused when the rail lines were found to be too far apart, according to federal reports.

UNDATED – Each year, railroad trains carry nearly 11 billion pounds of chemicals through South Dakota’s cities and countryside, much of it on tracks that were built 100 or more years ago..

Finding out which specific compounds are in those potentially toxic payloads is extremely difficult or even impossible due to national security concerns and secrecy within railroad companies. In some cases, the nature of materials transported becomes known only after an accident.

State and local governments can ask railroad companies for lists of hazardous materials transported through their jurisdictions only if the information would be used to help them prepare for emergencies, but not to inform the public, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Concerns over the stability, security and safety of the U.S. railroad system took on greater significance after a catastrophic derailment and fire on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.

The accident was caused by a worn-out wheel bearing on a tanker car, the same condition that prompted 17 freight cars to derail at 40 mph near Wessington, South Dakota in February 2019.

The toxic chemical burned in the Ohio accident, vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastics, is part of the larger category of chemicals that can be carried by trains in South Dakota but which is not reported to the public.

Some Great Plains states, such as Minnesota and Wyoming, report on the total tonnage of hazardous materials carried by rail in their states, but South Dakota does not.

In South Dakota, “chemicals or allied products” are the fourth most-carried product by railroads based on tonnage after coal, farm products and food products. After chemicals, the payload category of “crude petroleum, natural gas or gasoline” was next in tonnage with 7.3 billion pounds annually.

According to federal documents, the chemicals category can include products such as anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, human and animal medicines, pesticides, inks and dyes, and even radioactive compounds or those used in chemical warfare.

State officials say the federal government is largely responsible for regulation of railroad companies.

Yet South Dakota had 114 railroad “incidents and accidents” from 2012 to 2022. The state had a derailment about once every five weeks over the past six years, many attributed to worn rail components.

In September 2015, several ethanol cars derailed and caught fire in a rural area near Lesterville, about 20 miles northwest of Yankton. The NTSB later found rail line defects caused the accident in which no one was injured but a million dollars in damage was done and ethanol leaked into a creek.

South Dakota rail carriers are preparing for potential trouble this year because of the likelihood of spring flooding and soft ground.

Despite safety concerns, one expert told News Watch that, overall, while railroads can be improved, rail remain a relatively safe way to carry materials that are necessary to Americans and the American economy, and is better than using trucks or pipelines to carry critical commodities.

For South Dakota News Watch, I’m Bart Pfankuch