The train that derailed last week near Herington, causing a car to fall off the railroad bridge, could have been much worse.

No one was killed or injured and the rail car that fell held wheat. The car missed the roadway by about 400 feet and landed near a creek.

“Grain is not hazardous or toxic,” Dickinson County Emergency Management Director Chancy Smith told commissioners during their Thursday meeting. “But it is a problem when it enters the waterway and starts to rot. Then the grain takes all the oxygen out of the water and kills all the fish.”

Five cars derailed off the Union Pacific Railroad bridge Sunday morning, Sept. 26 and fell onto the south side of Kansas Highway 4, causing one of the cars to fall off the bridge, landing by the creek. The derailment was caused by rail failure, Smith said.

While the derailment was not a catastrophic problem, the grain spill was a potential environmental concern. Waterways in the southern part of Dickinson County are in the habitat of the Topeka Shiner, a tiny minnow which has been on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s critical list of endangered species.

“The state’s very curious about everything that happens with that (Shiner’s habitat) so they were very careful,” Smith said. “Maybe a 10-gallon bucket of grain went into the water, but they (crews) got in there and cleaned that out quickly. The crisis was averted.”

Smith said the rail car that fell from the bridge was expected to be moved as soon as it could be pulled back unto the tracks and hauled off.

Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson asked what would have happened if a more toxic substance had been on board.

Smith said that would have involved an entirely different response and recovery.

What if it was hazardous?

In the case of a toxic or hazardous spill, Smith’s first call would be to a regional hazardous materials team. They would set up a monitoring site around the area to make sure nothing is going in or out and would set up air monitoring systems. They also would be checking to see if there were vapors, plumes or other substances escaping from the area.

If there were, an evacuation area would be determined. Once that perimeter was set up a hazmat team would be called in to remove the problem.

“We have a very good team in our area that we use. About 10 years ago we had wreck around K-4 where a semi rolled over and dumped 6,000 gallons of unleaded gas in the ditch. It rain into a field and they had to dig a 40-by-40 foot hole 8 to 10 feet deep, take all that dirt out and do something with it,” Smith explained. “So that’s the remediation type of thing we do after a bad spill like that.”

His job is to coordinate with the teams that need to be called on scene, make sure the proper state and federal authorities are notified and then document the steps that were taken to fix the problem.

Luckily, last week’s grain spill was a minor incident, but it provided a good opportunity to meet several people who are new in the various response positions.

“I was able to meet them and get their contact information. So when something happens I can say, ‘Hey do you know this is going on?’ and I’ll know who that person is and I’ve got a face with the position,” Smith said.

Dickinson County Emergency Management is planning to hold a disaster exercise sometime in 2022. Planning is expected to start in November with a tabletop exercise.

“I’m pretty excited about having you guys participate in that and seeing the steps we follow in a disaster, who’s all involved in it and the resources that we have throughout the state that usually respond and help other counties,” Smith told commissioners. “We’ve never had one of those in the county.”


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