9 Investigates: Is Charlotte safe from trains carrying toxic chemicals?

CHARLOTTE — A train derailment earlier this year spilled toxic chemicals across East Palestine, Ohio, but it brought back memories of one of the worst Hazmat crashes on record in the Carolinas.

A Channel 9 investigation found that dangerous chemicals are traveling through our local communities every day, and some say that not enough is being done to make it safer.

According to data from the Federal Railroad Association, there have been 368 train crashes across the Carolinas in the last ten years. But when looking at the devastating crash in Ohio, you don’t have to go deep into the archives to find a similar incident in the Carolinas.

The community in Graniteville, South Carolina, is still recovering from a crash nearly 20 years after the dangerous spill in Ohio. On Jan. 6, 2005, 90 tons of toxic chlorine spewed into the air while the small town slept.

Louisiana Sanders lives five minutes from the mill in Graniteville, close enough to visit her remaining family but far enough to not be crushed by the memories from 18 years ago.

“I have a lot of friends who died that lived on that street right there,” Sanders told 9 Investigates’ Madison Carter. “Whenever I drove for months toward that railroad track and had to go across it, I had anxiety.”

Graniteville was regarded as one of the worst hazmat crashes on record prior to East Palestine. Calls to 911 on that day echoed with Graniteville residents pleading for help and describing how their lungs hurt after the chlorine spill. Ten people died and more than 5,000 neighbors had to evacuate the area.

But the same types of train cars that carry those potentially deadly chemicals also travel along Charlotte’s railways. Carter spotted trains passing right through Uptown Charlotte with labels for ammonium nitrate and aniline. Chemists tell us that both of those chemicals can be dangerous.

In the interactive graphic below, see what each label on a train car is for:

Safety advocates have pushed to create a notification system for communities, a way to let people know when dangerous chemicals are traveling through their area. However, Allan Zarembski, who runs the railroad engineering and safety program at the University of Delaware, says that may not be realistic.

“A train is going 500 miles [and] is maybe going, you know, across 200 communities. Do they notify all 200 communities on every train and every route?” Zarembski said.

According to federal data, there are more than 1,000 derailments across the country every year. But most transportation officials agree that trains are the safest way to move toxic chemicals.

“We need to understand what concerns we might have with a rising accident rate in the context of the fact that railroads are still far and away the safest way to transport large quantities of freight,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said following the crash in East Palestine. “One train can take 30, 40, 50, 100 trucks off the road -- the risks associated with truck transportation are much greater.”

Notable chemical train derailments in the Carolinas:

Crossing the guard

For decades, though, the railroad industry has worked to block legislation, and several recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board, aimed at improving railway safety. Those blocked measures include things like implementing a minimum number of crew members and limiting train car length.

“I think that the government needs to get up off with their behind and take care of those regulations that need to be taken care of,” Sanders told Carter. “This is 2023, but 20-something years later [after Graniteville] almost -- that shouldn’t have ever happened in Ohio.”

In North Carolina, legislators introduced a new bill in April that aims at improving railway safety. House Bill 639, if passed, would regulate the length of railroad trains to keep intersections in communities from being blocked, it would mandate a minimum of two-person railroad crews, and it would add regulations for more sensors to warn of rail defects.

One thing that rail companies have done to help is creating the AskRail app. It allows first responders to type in a rail car’s ID and get data back on what type of hazardous materials are inside. That can help decide how to best respond in an emergency.

The Association of American Railroads, which represents railroad companies across the U.S., also told Channel 9 they have a proven track record of supporting “smart” safety improvements.

(WATCH: City council approves $30 million in light rail repairs after 2022 derailment)

Madison Carter

Madison Carter, wsoctv.com

Madison is an investigative reporter and anchor for Channel 9.

Michael Stolp

Michael Stolp, wsoctv.com

Michael is an investigative reporter for Channel 9.

Andrew McMillan, wsoctv.com

Andrew McMillan is the Digital Content Manager for WSOC-TV.

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