“…Like a Train Wreck”

About the author: Dan Heister has been an on-scene coordinator with Superfund in Region 10 since 2000 and joined EPA 13 years before that. Dan’s responses have ranged from fifty gallon oil spills on a small creek to spending seven weeks in a FEMA trailer helping with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Nine out of ten OSCs agree, if you’re going to respond to a petroleum spill, red diesel is the best kind. It floats, it’s less flammable and aquatically toxic than gas. It doesn’t persist and stain like a heavy oil, and wind and sunlight degrade it relatively quickly. It’s also red for higher visibility. It’s dyed red to indicate tax-exempt status for off-highway use (farm equipment, locomotives, etc.). That said, it is still extremely problematic for humans and the environment when spilled.

I responded to a train derailment in SW Oregon in October 2004. The train was on a steep grade when the tracks snapped, simultaneously derailing the train and puncturing the locomotive’s saddle tanks. Over 3800 gallons of red diesel went onto the ground and some into Cow Creek fifty feet below. Luckily there were no tank cars involved. Ten out of ten OSCs agree that derailed tank cars are a nightmare. The cargo was lumber, flatbed after flatbed. Going up the windy mountain road to the derailment (where my derailments always happen), you were struck by what looked like piles of tooth picks strewn along the other side of the river. Only they were 10, 12, and 16-foot long 2 by 4s.

The Command Post (CP) was placed .5 miles up from the spill, at the first wide spot in the road we located. On the second day the media began to make inquiries. A local TV station sent a reporter who appeared to be fresh out of college. She had made her way up to the CP to interview me. It was a small station (most outside Portland are) and she was camera man, producer, and reporter. Her questions were short and to the point and I answered them directly. As she was packing up her tripod she asked: “Could you show me where the wreck is?” I looked over my shoulder up the road knowing it dead-ended about five miles away, and then I asked her which way she took to get to the CP. As I had suspected she had come up past the wreck, but had not seen the carnage. I went back down the road to show her the “tooth picks.” She looked stunned and seemed a bit sheepish. I then said: “Hence the expression, ‘like a train wreck.'” Sheepishness quickly turned to a glare.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.