Trains carry crude oil and toxic chemicals through Utica, a fact that has become part of the debate over the proposed downtown hospital.
The train tracks pass within a half mile of the site proposed by the Mohawk Valley Health System. The group #NoHospitalDowntown has been sounding the alarm over whether it makes sense to build a hospital in an area likely to be evacuated in case of a train wreck that results in a fireball.
Many train safety advocates refer to the area within half a mile of tracks as the red zone.
Brett Truett, a co-founder of the group that opposes the downtown hospital site, warned about the proximity between the site and the tracks in an April 10, 2016, Facebook post.
“It was further explained that in the event of a train derailment, especially one carrying toxic materials, a certain radius around the crash site would need to be evacuated,” he wrote. “If this were to include the new hospital, a compound problem would exist; the hospital might need to be evacuated, yet potential accident victims would be seeking care at the hospital.”
‘Safer than … roads’
But Kevin Revere, director of the Oneida County Department of Emergency Services, dismissed the need to weigh that concern in siting a new hospital.
“To me, it’s a nonissue. It’s so small (a risk), it really shouldn’t be under consideration,” he said.
Fred Millar, an independent rail safety consultant in Washington, D.C., with a background in both emergency management and environmental advocacy, said that guidelines don’t prevent construction near tracks.
But he doesn’t think that’s because building near a rail line is safe. He said he thinks rail safety rules are far too lax with even common-sense precautions fought off by the industry.
“There’s not rules in the country, that I know about, in terms of land use in terms of planning and zoning that say you can’t do this near a rail line,” he said.
He particularly fears the potential outcome of either the derailment of or a terrorist assault on chlorine tankers, which could release a huge cloud of toxic gas.
If the health system really looked at the risks, it would likely choose to go elsewhere, Millar speculated.
“We shouldn’t even build railroads through major developed areas,” he said.
The Trump administration recently rolled back one new regulation from the Obama era requiring trains carrying crude oil and hazardous chemicals to update to safer braking systems.
That regulation came in the wake of several train accidents that spilled crude oil and caused fires, some of which burned for days. The worst was in 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a runaway train car spilled oil that burned downtown, killing 47 and destroying 30 buildings.