First responders prepare for hazmat disasters

Norfolk Southern Railway Asheville
FIRE DRILL: The Asheville Fire Department, firefighters from Buncombe County fire departments and several local municipalities and staff from the N.C. Department of Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway reviewed their protocols for train disasters March 21-23. Photo courtesy of Asheville Fire Department

Area residents noticed when a Norfolk Southern Railway train derailed in Ohio, spewing clouds of toxic gas and later smoke. After all, Norfolk Southern trains pass through Western North Carolina.

The Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine affected nearly 50 cars belonging to Norfolk Southern. The incident caused widespread fear, as 20 cars in the 150-car train carried hazardous materials.

According to WKYC, an Ohio news station, the derailment released 1.1 million gallons of vinyl chloride. A resulting explosion and fire caused chemicals to become airborne; additionally, five cars carrying the chemical were burned to prevent another explosion. Following the derailment and the burn, East Palestine residents have reported rashes, congestion, headaches and nausea.

For many in Asheville, the derailment and the railway involved hit uncomfortably close to home: Norfolk Southern Railway Co. runs through Asheville, passing through Marion, Old Fort, Marshall and Hot Springs.

However, Wesley Rogers, Asheville Fire Department’s division chief of logistics and special operations, wants people to know rail incidents are “very rare in the Asheville area.” He acknowledged “anxiety is up a little bit” among locals following the East Palestine derailment.

To keep area responders’ skills sharp, they regularly practice their processes in such an event. Rogers says it was a coincidence that several agencies reviewed their protocols March 21-23, shortly after the Ohio spill. The review included AFD, firefighters from Buncombe County departments and several local municipalities, and staff from the N.C. Department of Transportation and Norfolk Southern. It’s a review Norfolk Southern and local emergency services revisit every three to five years, he explained.

Norfolk Southern declined over email to make a spokesperson available for an interview. The spokesperson provided information about the recent safety review for responders.

Train training

Norfolk Southern’s March review involved a classroom portion inside a train car, which the company brings to “provide the responders some hands-on experience,” explains Angie Ledford, Buncombe County Emergency Management Division manager. The review also took place outside the train car on the grounds of the railyard.

That classroom portion covered “general safety, identification of tank cars, specific valves and fittings, responding to a locomotive emergency, what the shipping documents are [and] where they’re located,” explains Ledford.

A train’s shipping documents contain an inventory of all cars in the train, their location and whether they are carrying cargo. Cars carrying cargo must have a waybill specifying the contents, Ledford continues.

“Also, any car that is carrying something hazardous is required to have hazardous materials placards on all sides of the car,” she says. The U.S. Department of Transportation sets regulations on the amount of hazmat materials that require a placard, Rogers adds. Smaller quantities of hazmat materials may not require a placard. (Railroads are not required to share with the NCDOT when a train’s cargo is carrying hazardous materials, says spokesperson Liz Macam.)

Individual fire departments participate in a “regular ongoing hazardous materials training,” which is not specific to trains, Ledford says. There are requirements for annual reviews, as well as hazmat-specific reviews that occur weekly, says Rogers, explaining, “They’re constantly drilling us on how to handle or mitigate hazmat incidents.”

Local hazards

Speaking specifically to the chemical that caused the disaster in East Palestine, Rogers tells Xpress, “We have not responded to any vinyl chloride spills or accidents in Asheville.”

He did not recall hazmat incidents involving other chemicals on the railways or highways in Buncombe County. The most recent hazardous materials incident he recalled responding to occurred at a company in Yancey County.

Off the highways or roadways, local emergency management agencies respond to hazmat incidents “once or twice a month,” Rogers explains. Those are primarily natural gas leaks resulting from a line cut by construction workers, followed by propane leaks, he says.

And in the previous two to three years, a new chemical incident requiring emergency service response has emerged: fentanyl exposure, Rogers says.

Although most fentanyl is made overseas, first responders can come into contact with the drug at places where it’s stored, mixed or distributed, according to 2021 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines on methamphetamine and fentanyl laboratory cleanup.


Emergency response to a chemical incident is a union of local, countywide, regional and state agencies, each with its own role and chain of command.

Training in hazardous materials operations is part of the job for every AFD or Buncombe County firefighter, who receives 40 hours of training in hazmat. (Unlike AFD, which is a singular department, the Buncombe County Fire Marshal’s Office works collaboratively with 19 fire departments throughout the county, each of which is a separate agency, explains Buncombe County Fire Marshal Kevin Tipton.)

Hazmat technicians for the AFD receive additional training on hazardous materials that is akin to college-level chemistry classes, Rogers says.

Asheville is also one of seven locations in North Carolina housing a N.C. Hazardous Materials Regional Response Team under the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Spread across three stations in Asheville, the team can respond to any hazardous materials incident in the western part of the state, as directed by the county’s emergency management coordinator. The team also works with the agencies responsible for the public water supply and air quality.


A chemical spill requires cleanup not only of the ground and sometimes the water; it can also require decontamination of affected people, including first responders.

In the event of an incident, the Buncombe County Department of Public Health would “evaluate the hazardous materials that were spilled or released and determine the health and environmental impact based on the facts that go along with that particular agent,” says the county’s public health preparedness officer, Nathan Greene.

Further actions would be determined with the NCDEQ. But the Public Health Department also may  distribute “chempacks” — an antidote to chemical nerve agents. Held in strategic stockpiles located in jurisdictions around the country, chempacks would be obtained through a local Emergency Management Services request to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response, most chempack stockpiles are located in hospitals or fire stations. Ninety percent of the U.S. population lives within one hour of a chempack stockpile, the department says.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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