Nightmare Along The Mohawk – The Herkimer Meth Bridge Part 3

Lac Megantic train explosion

by Stephen Ames Berry

The Herkimer Meth Bridge incident Part 3.  Part 1 tells how we stumbled upon a meth cook site beneath a major railway bridge in Herkimer NY and what we did about it. The bridge carries about 1,000 chemical tanker cars a day. Part 2 of the Herkimer Meth Bridge showed the initial massive state and federal response. In Part 3, you’ll see why there was such a massive response and what’s been done to safeguard the rails and lives and, as a wise man wrote, “Make Herkimer Safe Again.”

HARBINGER OF DEATH – THE DOT-111 CHEMICAL TANKER CAR

Surviving DOT-111 railway cars at Lac Megantic train explosion site
Surviving DOT-111 railway cars at Lac Megantic, Quebec train explosion site. Prior to the derailment they’d been detached from the other 63 DOT-111 cars that did explode .

The  2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec rail disaster was caused by the explosion of 63 derailed DOT-111 chemical cars carrying six million liters of petroleum crude oil. 47 people were killed and half the town destroyed. Lava-like streams of burning crude oil spread fire and more death through the town’s sewers.

lac_megantic-burning-day-after-dot111-chemical-cars-explosion
Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec the day after the rail disaster.

 DOT-111 SODA POP CAN CHEMICAL CARS

dot111 chemical car derailment rockford llinois 2009
Aftermath of the 2009 Rockford, Il train derailment and explosion. Of 119 DOT-111 cars, 18 derailed, 13 were breached and caught fire. All carried denatured fuel ethanol. The train was traveling at 38 mph. There were fatalities and injures and the town was evacuated. (NTSB photo)

The DOT-111 chemical tanker car is the fragile workhorse of the chemical refinery industry. There are 272,000 DOT-111’s in service in the United States, comprising 67% of the US rail tanker fleet. 171,000 of them transport hazardous materials. The DOT-111 is highly susceptible to corrosion and containment failure. All models are notoriously fragile–critics call them “soda pop cans.”

Each car can carry 20,000+ gallons (78,200 L). The newer DOT-11A100W1 can weigh as much as 263,000 pounds (119,000 kg) when full.  They transport a witch’s brew of poisonous and volatile chemicals over our neglected, rickety national railway infrastructure. The DOT-111 is always a disaster waiting to happen.

My conservative guess is that over a thousand chemical tanker cars a day, most of them DOT-111’s, cross the CSX railway bridge over Herkimer’s West Canada Creek. The trains are frequent, often several an hour, and long, sometimes with as many as 100 DOT-111’s or other chemical tankers per train, sometimes just a few buffered by regular freight cars. The CSX line that traverses the Herkimer Meth Bridge is the major east-west rail conduit to and from the Northeastern United States.

WHAT’S IN THE TANKer CARS?

According to Pollution Law Watch, besides crude oil, the DOT-111 transports radioactive material, explosives, and some of the most toxic chemicals on earth… among them methyl bromide, ethyl trichlorosilane, methanol, sodium chlorate, sulfuric acid, chlorine, toluene, diisocyanate. Several are fatal if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Many if spilled have a recommended evacuation radius of 5-10 miles.

(Assuming a derailment at the Herkimer Meth Bridge, that would be at least Herkimer, East Herkimer, Mohawk, Little Falls and a large stretch of the New York State Turnpike. and the Erie Canal.)

graniteville_derailment_aerial_overview
Cloud of deadly chlorine gas spreads from a single breached DOT-111 chemical tanker car across Graniteville, SC. 60,000 tons of gas were dispersed.

In a 2005 train wreck in Graniteville, SC, a single derailed DOT-111 tank car carrying 90 tons of chlorine released 60 tons of chlorine gas, killing 9 residents, injuring another 250 and forcing the evacuation of 5,400 people for two weeks:

graniteville-train-wreck-dot-111-gas-release
Breached DOT-111 chemical tanker car that spewed 60,000 tons of deadly chlorine gas across Graniteville, SC lies amid other derailed cars.

Amid the heap of derailed railway cars above lies the breached DOT-111 chemical tanker car that spewed 60,000 tons of deadly chlorine gas across Graniteville, SC.

Derailment of any chemical tanker car anywhere can wreak havoc, destroying lives, property and the environment. The degree of devastation is determined by the volume and type of chemicals released, which depends upon the number of chemical tanker cars involved. In the horrific Lac Megantic disaster, six million liters of crude petroleum oil from 63 DOT-111 cars killed 47 and destroyed half the town. In Granitesville, one DOT-111 tanker car breach gassed 9 residents to death and injured 250. Both incidents occurred on land with no direct impact on watercourses. Here in Central New York, though, our major east-west railway line often parallels the Erie Canal and the Mohawk River:

csx-rail-lines-central-new-york-state
CSX Rail Lines Central New York State

The Herkimer Meth Bridge and Tanker car CATASTROPHE

223 mile marker

Here’s a 82 car DOT-111 chemical tanker train carrying methanol as it approaches the CSX railway bridge over Herkimer’s West Canada Creek at the 223 mile marker. Note the red flammable gas warning placard on the lower right.

Herkimer’s methamphetamine cooks aren’t Walter White and Jesse. Assume a night’s meth cook beneath the Herkimer Meth Bridge had gone wrong. And an explosion beneath the bridge triggered a derailment of a similar chemical tanker train. How many cars could have tumbled into the creek?

There are no online specs of the West Canada Creek railway bridge’s span. But just upstream is the much loved and long abandoned Herkimer Trolley bridge, which is 1,023.5 feet long. The bridges appear to be approximately the same length.

The Herkimer Trolley Bridge and the West Canada Creek Railway Bridge

Herkimer Trolley Bridge (just below Rt. 5 highway bridge), and West Canada Creek railway bridge (bottom).

 

dot-111-chemical-tank-car
Unexploded DOT-111 chemical tanker car.

The average DOT-111A chemical tanker car is 45 ft long. Given the bridge’s span, 22 chemical tanker cars could be on it when a derailment occurred. Most would tumble into West Canada Creek.

Given the DOT-111’s horrific history, many if not all the cars would breach, potentially spewing 484,000 gallons, or 15,242 tons of toxic chemicals into Herkimer’s air and water. Other DOT-111 cars that fell onto the embankments would also breach. The immediate nature and extent of the disaster in the Herkimer area would depend upon the cars’ contents: explosion, fire, poison gas or all three are possible. Whatever the outcome, it wouldn’t be pretty. And the rest of the hellish stuff would quickly flow 1/2 mile down the fast-moving West Canada into the Mohawk River and from there on into the Hudson River. It wouldn’t be the BP Oil spill, but the Hudson’s not the Gulf of Mexico.

Hudson-River-from-the-Poughkeepsie
The Hudson River seen from the Poughkeepsie Bridge

The Hudson River Watershed

Of the 65 major tributaries of the Hudson River, the Mohawk River is the largest, entering the Hudson near Albany. The Hudson River Watershed is comprised of 11 major sub-watersheds that drain approximately 13,400 square miles. About 60% of the water in the watershed is used for commercial or industrial purposes and is home to about 5 million people. Such a massive toxic spill would destroy marine ecologies and impact the health and livelihoods of the 5 million people who live in the Hudson River Watershed for a very long time.
hudson-river-watersheds

the herkimer meth bridge today

1005160930

The good news: since last winter law enforcement action at the Herkimer Meth Bridge, the bridge h1005160931as seen a lot of much-needed rail bed improvement, and upgraded electronic safety features.

The bridge is also the benficiary of more boots on the ground and eyes in the skies over Herkimer. And Herkimer’s itself is the beneficiary of an expanded policy enabling the domestic use of drone surveillance.

Most nights you can see several drones on station over West Canada Creek near the railway bridge, with others patrolling through the sky in every-changing surveillance patterns. Sometimes they hover lower, as one did last night in the vicinity of  Herkimer’s Eureka Avenue. (They don’t have to leave their navigation lights on. And probably sometimes don’t. That’s just a friendly hello. )

why herkimer has surveillance drones

Quadcopter in dronebox
Quadcopter drone nested in a remote solar-powered recharging drone box. H3 Dynamics photo.

It’s not just the bridge incident. That was but symptomatic of the anarchy spawned by Herkimer’s lawlessness and its rich tradition of failed governance.

herkimer government inaction
The 3 Wise Monkeys of Herkimer

It’s made the Village of Herkimer a pirate haven harboring all sorts of criminals, notably narcotics and child traffickers. Then came the threat of mass destruction posed by a potential rail disaster, mindlessly touched off by Herkimer’s cop-coddled criminals. So Herkimer is now guarded by drones. Lots of them.

Depending on the type of drone, operators can track up to 65 different targets across a distance of 65 square miles. Drone cameras have infrared, complemented by heat sensors, motion detectors and automated license plate readers. Military and police drones integrated with facial recognition technology and multiple databases make it possible to remotely identify persons of interest.

the battle for herkimer

The battle for the Herkimer Meth Bridge was but part of the battle for Herkimer and the future of New York. From a broader perspective, New York appears to be aggregating resources to Central New York in anticipation of climate change driving industry and people inland and north. Worldwide, we’re facing the largest migration of populations since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Our region has a wealth of natural resources. Herkimer’s strategic location astride principal transportation routes with quick access to major metropolitan areas are what attracted the organized crime and now, the state and federal governments. The team with the biggest stick wins. Care to bet?

The deadly, immortal dot-111 chemical tanker car

Sadly, the DOT-111 chemical tanker cars that could wipe us all out in a few chaotic moments will continue rolling along as the oil industry and refiners fight proposed safety changes.  If you live near a major railway line as we do, you might want to buy a gas mask.

The Herkimer Post would like to thank the officers of the New York State Police and agents of the US Department of Homeland Security, without whose vigilance and dedication to duty this series would not have been written. Also a grand tip of the hat  to Night Court and Trapper Ron. 

 

Author:

This blog is my perspective on dwelling in our small village nestled among beautiful forests, farms and open landscapes. Educated in Israel and the US, I have an MS in Computer Science. My viewpoint has been shaped by world travel, friends and benefactors both strangers and people I know. Linda Kaidan