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Local 12 Investigates: How prepared is Cincinnati for hazmat disaster like East Palestine?

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CINCINNATI (WKRC) – Chlorine, vinyl chloride, even paint and gasoline... all are considered hazardous materials. Across the country, more than two million shipments of hazardous material travel by train, truck and even on barges each day.

That includes nearly 1,700 truckloads of hazmat traveling through the I-71/75 corridor in Florence as detailed in this new report that focuses only on Northern Kentucky.

What happens if there’s a catastrophic release here in the Tri-State, like the one that happened in East Palestine?

That disaster had the following impacts: 1.6 million pounds of dangerous chemicals spilled and a fire consumed some of that and produced a toxic cloud.

Cincinnati Fire Department’s hazmat unit, with 130 highly skilled members and millions of dollars worth of equipment, said it would be among the first to respond.

“Cincinnati is very prepared and we’re as prepared as we can be, because we maintain a lot of capability that helps us respond to an emergency,” said Assistant Chief Matthew Flagler, who oversees the hazmat unit.

Steve Hensley is director of Kenton County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Planning Department. He also chairs the Northern Kentucky Emergency Management Committee, the agency charged with planning for disasters like East Palestine for nine counties.

Local 12 asked him, “What is your nightmare scenario? What keeps you up at night when it comes to something like East Palestine?”

“If we had a, let’s say, a commercial motor vehicle overturn on I-75 near Dixie Highway,” Hensley said. “Well, we’ve got Beechwood Schools right there. We’ve got a Kroger shopping center right there. And we can play the scenario out at every interchange we have up and down I-75.”

The latest Northern Kentucky Emergency Planning Committee (NKEPC) data released last week shows 16% of the trucks passing through Florence by the Florence Y'alls baseball stadium on the interstate carried unspecified flammable goods, and 11% had a 1993 placard, most typically meaning diesel fuel.

Another 10% were carrying corrosive materials and nearly 9% had the 1203 placard, indicating gasoline.

When trains are included, the most common hazardous material coming through is chlorine, which can be extremely dangerous in gas form, as seen last year in Jordan when 12 people died due to a tank leak.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration said paint is the most commonly spilled product nationally so far this year.

The top five also includes isopropyl alcohol and sodium hydroxide, more commonly known as lye, which can burn eyes, skin and lungs in close contact or if put into the air.

Bob Richard previously served as deputy administrator for that agency. He said the national system is fairly safe. He added more information should be provided by hazmat shippers to first responders and planners ahead of time for all kinds of shipments.

“Victoria’s Secret knows where every piece of women’s underwear are at any given time in the supply chain,” he said. “When it comes to hazmat, we don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.”

The Federal Railway Administration, which regulates the rail industry, declined on-camera interviews.

A spokesman pointed out U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called on railroads to provide advance notice to area planners and first responders of toxic shipments after East Palestine.

The railroad safety bill co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also includes that proposed requirement.

Local planners welcome the idea but said it will be challenging, adding the information should be secure to avoid terrorist attacks.

“I’m all in for any advance information we can get,” Hensley said. “But I also understand that it could be extremely difficult to provide accurate information and I don’t want to receive what is believed is accurate information and find out later it isn’t.”

Hensley also warned against unrealistic expectations in the case of an emergency like East Palestine.

"We do have plans in place, it will look from the external standpoint, it will look like chaos," he said. "But I can tell you, it’s organized. We have first responders in place, we have procedures in place.”

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Local planning committees like NKEPC require a media representative on their board. James Pilcher has served in that role for the agency for seven years.

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