Two-agency response shows East County ‘hazmat readiness

As it turns out, it wasn’t a calamity. But see how Gresham and Portland crews worked together to make sure a leaking railroad car didn’t turn into a catastrophe …

Traffic along NE Sandy Boulevard, from the eastern edge of Portland well into Gresham, was closed – and some areas were evacuated – while a leaking rail car was investigated by HAZMAT agencies from both Portland and Gresham.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The members of Portland Fire & Rescue’s and Gresham Fire Department’s HAZMAT (Hazardous Materials) Teams didn’t seem to notice the pelting rain, occasionally turning to sleet, when they were called out Sunday night, January 6.

The emergency radio calls indicated that a railroad tank car, traveling eastbound on the tracks that parallel NE Sandy Blvd., was leaking. The crew on a westbound train said they saw vapor coming from the tanker.

HAZMAT crews from both Portland and Gresham, working with officials from the railroad, developed a plan of action to determine the whether or not a tank car was leaking – and the potential hazard it might entail.

Portland and Gresham crews scramble
Because the potential hazardous materials spill was spotted in Portland about NE 158th Avenue – the train finally stopped in Gresham, just west of NE 182nd Avenue – HAZMAT crews from both cities rushed to the site.

For several hours, NE Sandy Blvd. was shut down, and bus service was rerouted. Boeing Aerospace workers waited at roadblocks to report for work, as the HAZMAT team members checked out the potential leak.

Crews get ready to sample materials they may find when they inspect the rail cars in question.

Running down the possibilities
Grant Coffey, HAZMAT Coordinator for the City of Portland, was on-scene taking charge of the event. He’s a good man for the job: Coffey came up through the ranks of Portland Fire & Rescue, led PF&R’s HAZMAT team for many years, and now teaches the subject at the college level.

“We’re checking the manifests for the cars,” Coffey told us. “The product in one of the cars is probably granulated powder. Another is plastic, and acrylic, in liquid form. It’s got a 30-day inhibitor, so it’s probably not going to be a problem – especially at this [low] temperature, even without the inhibitor.”

The concern then focused on just one of three tanker cars: “It’s filled with 183,000 pounds of phenol. That’s an organic solvent used in industry. This product gives off a white, maybe a pinkish, vapor.”

It’s not like chlorine gas, ammonia, phosgene, or chlorine, Coffey told us. “It’ll kill you if you fell in a pool of it, or ingested it.  But it’s not extremely hazardous.”

After careful analysis, HAZMAT crews clear the incident.

Better to be safe …
While we were at the scene, the crews brought back the information that all was safe, and they started allowing workers to travel to their jobs, and traffic to resume, on NE Sandy Boulevard.

“Why all this response?” we asked.

“Better safe than sorry,” replied Coffey. “The idea is to take every precaution. If there were a hazardous situation, we need to be well on top it before anyone – or the environment – could be hurt.”

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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