Is Vt. prepared for emergency like Canadian rail disaster? - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Is Vt. prepared for emergency like Canadian rail disaster?

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Twenty are dead and another 30 are still missing in the province of Quebec, after a train derailment led to a massive fuel explosion this weekend.

Just south of the Canadian border, the tragedy rattled those in Vermont's rail industry.

"Definitely made us think about the things we do," said Selden Houghton of Vermont Railway.

Houghton of Vermont Railway says they carry about 24,000 carloads of freight per year. He says homeland security concerns prevent him from saying how much of that is hazardous material.

The state of Vermont doesn't track rail traffic, but an industry report indicates 6.1 million tons of freight rolled through the Green Mountain State in 2010.

Houghton says they do everything they can to prevent disaster, but are prepared for it.

"We look at everything from a minor spill to a serious hazardous incident-- fire, something of that nature," Houghton said.

Rail experts say the chance of a similar incident here in Vermont is nearly zero, but they train for it constantly and say they're better equipped than responders in remote portions of Canada. In the Quebec crash, responders didn't have easy access to fire-suppressing foam. But Vermont has a rolling supply at the ready.

"We're prepared for any kind of hazmat in the state of Vermont, whether it's biological, chemical weapons of mass destruction, whatever it may be," said Chris Herrick, the Vt. Hazmat chief.

Herrick says in his 19 years with the crew, they've only been to about a dozen incidents involving trains, but respond to about 150 incidents a year in total.

"Any time you have large quantities of product moving, the potential is there," he said.

That potential became a reality in 2007, when 24 cars-- including 15 carrying gasoline-- jumped the rails in Middlebury leading to fire and evacuations. The local fire department led response efforts, coordinating with the rail operator and hazmat team.

"I personally have never been to the rail yard for an incident that involved the release of a hazardous material that needed to be mitigated," said Joe Keenan, the assistant fire marshal in Burlington.

Burlington firefighters say they're constantly in communication with Vermont Railway and could handle a small event. But given a catastrophe of the size and scope of the incident in Canada, only so much can be done.

Local fire departments will take the lead if and when an event occurs in their area. At that point, they'll coordinate with rail operators and involve the hazmat team if necessary. The National Guard would also likely be called in if Vermont ever faces a disaster like the one in Canada.

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