Norfolk Southern trains run alongside Morgan’s Grove Park south of Shepherdstown.
If the recent train derailment in Ohio has prompted you to consider how potential hazards are managed in Jefferson County, the first stop is the office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM), which oversees the county’s system of preparation, response, recover,y and mitigation. HSEM is not the first responder to incidents, but this office organizes the planning and pre-incident coordination that brings together multiple departments to practice and develop response plans before incidents occur.
HSEM’s list of potential hazards is long, including many types of natural disasters that come with living almost anywhere. Terrorism, violent disturbance, and dam failures are also on the list, but not common in the county. Wildfires and invasive species are common and definitely on the list. Hazardous materials are in a unique class — many are tied to some productive economic activity, but all are dangerous if misused or discharged into the environment without safeguards. As it’s described in the HSEM 2018 Hazard Mitigation Plan, a hazardous material is any “substance or material which, because of its chemical, physical or biological nature, poses a threat to life, health, or property if released from a confined setting.”
How Dangerous Is It?
HSEM classifies hazardous materials into four categories: Extremely Hazardous Substances (acutely toxic, cause irreversible damage or death), Hazardous Substances (threat to human health or the environment), Hazardous Chemicals (can cause fire/explosion, burns, or cancer), and Toxic Chemicals (chronic/long-term toxicity). HSEM also looks at the types and quantities of hazardous materials stored in the county and moving through the county (known as a “Commodity Flow Study”). The most recent such study was compiled in 2016 and counted roughly four dozen specific locations within the county. The majority of the locations on this list are related to the distribution or retailing of petroleum products (i.e., gas stations). Water treatment facilities are also on the list (due to chlorine and other chemicals used for disinfecting drinking water). There are a small number of industrial facilities in the county. Truck and rail represent the bulk of the risk from hazardous materials moving through the county.
HSEM’s 2018 hazard plan indicates that the county is likely to see more hazardous materials incidents from truck accidents than rail accidents, given the relative frequency of materials observed transiting through the county by each type of transportation. However, the study also includes a list of incidents for the eight year period through the end of 2017, showing 25 hazardous materials incidents, 14 of which were from fixed locations, 5 from railroad accidents, 2 from mobile sources, 2 unknown, 1 pipeline, and 1 aircraft incident.
Locating The Risk
The map at right shows the concentration of hazardous materials risk in Jefferson County. The red areas indicate fixed locations: the area centered around Ranson indicates the concentration of automobile service & repair stations; the area to the west of Harpers Ferry includes a water treatment plant and the Halltown Paper facility; the area northwest of Ranson includes the USDA research agricultural research facility south of Route 9. (This map predates the construction of the Rockwool factory near Kearneysville). The yellow areas overlay the three railroad lines in the county — the Norfolk Southern Railway that runs north-south through Charles Town, Ranson and Shepherdstown, and the two CSX lines which run east-west (passing through Harpers Ferry, Shenandoah Junction, and Ranson).
While the County has not recorded any serious hazardous materials incidents in the last decade, the HSEM 2018 plan notes that “spills into waterways and those that reach the groundwater are of particular concern due to the threat they impose to drinking water and subsequently public health, the environment, and fauna in the area.” The plan also noted the cascading impact of rail incidents, with the possibility of trains blocking access for both evacuation and emergency response.
How You Can Get Involved
HSEM relies on the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) to help execute its mission to inform and prepare the community. The LEPC includes many members from first responder and public health organizations, but also includes business owners, educators, community groups, and other residents. The LEPC meetings are open to the public. For information, email LEPC@JeffersonCountyWV.org or call 304-728-3290.Staff Contributor