Utah responders train on trains for chlorine disasters
Transportation • Three days of training gives firefighters, officials hands-on experience.
Published: April 9, 2014 06:48PM
Updated: April 12, 2014 10:41PM
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Michael McFall | The Salt Lake Tribune Dozens of first-responders underwent hands-on training Tuesday, April 8, 2014, in safely handling a chlorine chemical spill.

Chlorine doesn’t just help keep your pool clean — it can kill you.

When a train carrying the chemical was in an accident near a small South Carolina town, nine people died and 250 more were injured. That was nine years ago, but the specter of danger still looms, with tankers routinely carrying the substance through Utah.

That’s why Garth Swensen, a firefighter for the South Davis Metro Fire District, was standing on top of a train tanker Tuesday morning in a Salt Lake City rail yard and getting a close look at how the valves work. He was among dozens of emergency responders training on how to handle such a crisis, were it to happen here.

Chlorine is produced in so few areas around the country — yet is used in a lot of industries, including pharmaceuticals — that it has to be shipped. Men and women from agencies across the Wasatch Front, including the Utah Transit Authority, got hands-on with several kinds of tankers that transport the dangerous chemical.

“This is probably the most intense training we’ve had with trains, and that’s really nice, because with all the refineries we have, there’s rail everywhere that runs through our areas,” Swensen said, having just climbed down from a tanker. “It’s nice to come out and actually get hands on with different tank cars and see them up close … it’s helpful.”

Both the liquid and vapor forms of chlorine are heavy and present their own challenges that way, said Dan Thompson, transportation and distribution manager for Occidental Chemical Corporation. The liquid is about 1.5 times heavier than water, and the vapor about 2.5 times heavier than air, so the terrain, elevation and wind direction are a stronger focus when tackling a chlorine leak than with a lot of other chemicals, Thompson said.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot to start causing health problems,” Swensen said. “Ten parts per million is not a whole lot, but with [chlorine], at 10 parts per million you start to have health issues. From there, it obviously just gets exponentially worse.”

Since 2000, there have only been two fatal chlorine tank car accidents, according to The Chlorine Institute, a nonprofit trade association that organized the training. Besides the South Carolina accident, a 2004 accident in Macdona, Tex. killed three people, according to the institute.

Training continues through Thursday at the rail yard, 650 Davis Road (2190 South). In addition to the hands-on training with real tankers, the participants also received a lot of information in a classroom setting and at specific stations dealing with particular problems and ways to deal with them.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mikeypanda