St. Louis Fire Chief warns railroads to turn over life-saving supplies

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson says he’s been fighting for railroads to bring essential safety supplies closer to the city for about a decade.

He said there’s no question we’re going to need those supplies.

“It’s not if, it’s when. We know it’s going to happen,” Jenkerson said.

He was referring to the explosive train derailment in Ohio. He said it’s on his mind almost all the time.

“We’ve got a problem right now,” Jenkerson said.

He explained that certain toxic chemicals need specific fire suppressants to combat them.

“We tried begging the railroad to give us the products,” Jenkerson said. “They give us the equipment to provide foam and firefighting material on these trains and it was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to do it.’ It never came about.”

On the other side of the state, the railroads currently stock these fire suppressant chemicals, according to Jenkerson.

“Everything’s still in Kansas City, and that’s still a four-hour drive, you know, letting a couple of tank cars burn for four hours, that’s a big problem,” he said.

Union Pacific didn’t answer FOX 2’s question about the safety of chemicals stored in Kansas City, but a spokesman did.

Spokesperson Robynn Tysver said: “Some of our practices and protocols for handling HAZMAT material:

  • We have established hazardous material management teams regionally distributed throughout our network with a four-pronged mission: Prevent, Prepare, Respond and Recover.
  • Our HAZMAT teams conduct approximately 5,000 tanker inspections annually, checking everything from tanker fittings and vehicle identification to safety equipment. They also work with our contractors, our customers and government regulators to inspect, report and remediate findings.
  • We conduct annual drills to ensure our contingency plans remain effective and are being followed by all employees.”

St. Louis resident Mechelle Minden was surprised to learn of Jenkerson’s difficulties getting supplies closer to St. Louis.

“We need these chemicals,” Minden said.

Minden started about 10 years ago through a grassroots group called “St. Louis for safe trains.”

“I’m very proud that me and my neighbors were able to come together and really get people to listen to us,” she said.

After the 2013 Canada derailment, Minden’s group worked with firefighters to create a map showing what a similar explosion would do to Holly Hills. It would destroy hundreds of homes.

“We received a lot of support from the community that we needed to bring this issue to the forefront,” Minden said.

They worked with the fire department to count train cars, report observed chemical markings, and then the railroads reportedly adapted.

Jenkerson said it was completely different from what FOX 2 first reported in 2015 — gigantic chains of 100 oil train cars rolling right past the Arch.

“We don’t see it,” he said. “They walk around us, if you will.”

Now if he can just get the proper fire suppression chemicals down here to St. Louis and get rid of the railroad excuses like he said.

“Well, we’re going to need a place to store it,” Jenkerson said, a spokesman for the railroad said. “I’ll store it for you,” he told them. (Then they said) “We’re going to have to train for that.” We’re going to train for that, we’re going to do that.”

FOX 2 has also reached out to the St. Louis Terminal Railroad Association for an answer.

A spokesman for the company made the following statement:

“The BNSF Railway has response equipment and a foam trailer based in St. Louis and they conduct regular training.”

Jenkerson said the supply may only be enough to handle a tanker truck or two and he will continue to push for adequate supplies in St. Louis. St. Louis Fire Chief warns railroads to turn over life-saving supplies

Sarah Y. Kim

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