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October 23, 2014

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Toxic cargo ahead

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Signs of danger

Ever wonder just what’s in those tankers and tractor-trailers with cryptic hazardous materials placards?

There are nine official classes for hazardous materials, or substances that in the words of the federal register are “an unreasonable risk to health, safety and property when transported in commerce.”

Identifying placards permit the Nevada Highway Patrol and federal transportation officials to check cargo, transport manifests, driver qualifications and vehicle safety at weigh stations and during stops.

For underground pipes, signs note the location of high-pressure underground pipelines carrying liquid petroleum products and natural gas. Most incidents are caused by digging. A national 811 “Call Before You Dig” hotline seeks to prevent breaches.

Las Vegas is a place that takes gambling seriously. But the most serious bets are not in casinos or card rooms.

The big bets are placed every minute, every hour and every day; placed everywhere by every resident, every visitor. And they don’t even know it.

The stakes? Life and well-being.

The payout? Live another day.

The odds? No one knows.

The probabilities depend on propensities for human stupidity, frailty or greed, or for mechanical mishap caused by wear and tear or design flaw.

This is not about terrorism. This is about everyday life.

Death lurks beneath our neighborhood streets. It speeds along highways next to the family car. It clatters behind the places we live, work and shop.

Transportation by truck, train or pipeline of hazardous materials that can poison us, gas us, burn us and blow us to bits is such a part of everyday life it goes largely unseen and unrecognized. But there’s an ever-present threat in the valley created by transporting dangerous things in a maze of pipelines, rail lines and roads. An estimated 2 percent of the truck traffic on Las Vegas’ highways is hauling hazmat cargo.

Given the ubiquity, the transport industry has a good record. It is one sustained by a web of government regulations and enforcement actions — a safety net that protects the public from potential perils.

2008 percentage of hazardous commodities traveling in Clark County

• Class 1: Explosives — 0.4%

• Class 2: Gases — 30.7%

• Class 3: Liquids — 28.2%

• Class 4: Flammable solids — 15.3%

• Class 5: Oxidizers — 3.2%

• Class 6: Poisons, poison inhalation hazard, infectious substances — 2.7%

• Class 7: Radioactive — 0.5%

• Class 8: Corrosive — 8.5%

• Class 9: Miscellaneous — 10.6%

And yet, notes Richard Brenner, Clark County Fire Department Hazmat coordinator and dean of the Las Vegas region’s hazardous materials professionals: “Unfortunately, you can’t take the human out of the equation.”

Just ask Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Earl Coy. The 19-year NHP veteran once stopped a trucker hauling hydrochloric acid. It was leaking. To convince the trooper that the escaping fluid was safe, the driver swiped his fingers over it and licked them. “He said, ‘See?’ And then his mouth and lips started burning. I had to call his supervisor, and we took him off,” Coy said.

The dangers posed by the hazardous materials coursing through the valley become increasingly apparent if you look closely, inviting an uneasy game of “what if?” ­— what if the pipeline leaks, the tanker truck crashes, the rail car derails? And what if the contents that are hissing, burning or exploding aren’t known?

“The scariest thing is not knowing what’s involved,” said Eric Moon, captain of the Las Vegas City Fire Department Hazmat Unit.

Despite government requirements for hazmat placards and cargo manifests, “sometimes it’s just drums and barrels alongside the road, and you have to figure out the unknowns,” Moon said.

Of particular concern is biological material that may elude identification by standard sensors and meters.

What happens when the bet goes bad?

National statistics show that for 10 years, from 2004 through 2013, there were 3,131 serious hazmat truck crashes resulting in 91 deaths and $454 million in damage, and 398 serious hazmat train crashes with 14 fatalities and $138 million in damage. From 2012 to May, there were 85 serious pipeline breaches that killed people or caused significant property damage.

In recent history, incidents have happened elsewhere with horrific consequences. A runaway 72-car freight train carrying 2 million gallons of crude oil, for example, derailed July 6, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, setting off a series of massive explosions and inundating the town in flaming oil. The inferno destroyed the downtown area, and 47 people died.

We’re not immune.

• In 2011, a tanker truck carrying 9,100 gallons of gasoline rolled over and exploded on Interstate 15 near the Lake Mead Boulevard interchange. The blast closed the road to traffic for nearly 11 hours and melted pavement that had to be replaced.

• In 2009, workers installing underground fiber-optic cable along Eastern Avenue ruptured a natural gas line near Tropicana Avenue, releasing lethal fumes. Had the gas reached the surface and ignited, the consequences would have been catastrophic. Luckily, the gas was captured in a storm drain.

• In 2007, a rail tanker holding highly toxic chlorine gas escaped a train yard near Blue Diamond Highway and, at 50 mph, rolled 20 miles parallel to the Strip through downtown Las Vegas before ending up in North Las Vegas, where it was stopped by train workers who boarded it and activated a hand brake.

• In 1989, a freight train derailed near the base of the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino, Calif., killing four people and leveling seven homes. Unknown at the time, the wreck or its repair damaged a 14-inch pipeline that carries 90 percent of Las Vegas’ gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Two weeks later, it exploded, killing two people, injuring 31, damaging 18 homes and cutting fuel transmission to Las Vegas.

The Hazmat Highway

Did you know?

A 2008 study found that warning placards were missing in all 21 fatal crashes in Nevada that year and 98 percent of non-lethal crashes statewide involving trucks carrying hazmat cargo.

It’s 8 a.m., and the gates swing open to the Nevada Highway Patrol’s I-15 check station in Sloan, 10 miles south of Las Vegas.

It’s a bare-bones steel overhead shelter and asphalt pad about the size of two football fields. The roof covers three lanes where troopers and civilian inspectors of the NHP Commercial Enforcement Branch soon will begin checking trucks heading into Las Vegas. In the summer, temperatures can top 115 degrees.

Yearly, some 125,000 trucks haul 2.7 million tons of hazardous cargo to, through and from Clark County, according to a 2008 report used by the Clark County Hazardous Materials Response Plan. The majority of the hazmat traffic runs along I-15. A third of all the tonnage involves flammable gas. Flammable liquids come second, with explosives shipped least often.

NHP Lt. James Olschlager is the Las Vegas area commercial enforcement branch commander. He and 18 colleagues check hazmat trucks. Some are pulled out for inspection randomly, others because troopers sense that something’s not right.

Earl Coy is among the troopers who interview drivers and check their licenses, permits and manifests. He checks data plates on the sides of trailers to make sure there’s no overloading. He looks at the condition of the trailer, crawls underneath to look for problems, checks fittings and valves and then clambers to the top of tankers to make sure manhole hatches are secure. From experience, Coy knows that trucks from some states with lax driver and maintenance standards will need an extra look-see.

Last year, Olschlager’s group did 764 hazmat inspections and took 46 vehicles and nine drivers out of service.

Transgressions typically cost someone about $750. Shippers usually pay the citations for their drivers. Paperwork transgressions don’t put any points on the driver’s license.

The Hazmat Pipeline

Pipelines are the safest way to move hazardous liquids and gases

While U.S. Department of Transportation documents showed 202 hazmat incidents involving trucks and two incidents involving trains in the Las Vegas area from 2004 to 2014, there were no incidents involving transmission pipelines.

However, because of their high pressure and great volume, when problems occur, there’s potential for major damage:

Some 34 years ago, the Calnev pipeline carrying jet fuel ruptured in Las Vegas, spewing fuel for two hours. Later, the fuel ignited, forcing road closures. One firefighter was injured, and 50,000 to 100,000 gallons of jet fuel were spilled. Construction in the area was suspected of damaging the pipeline.

On May 25, 1989, the Calnev pipeline carrying fuel to Las Vegas ruptured in San Bernardino due to damage from the cleanup of a train derailment 13 days earlier. The resulting gasoline fire killed two people and destroyed 11 homes.

The hazmat register also lists five Southwest Gas mishaps over the past 10 years. In total, one person died and $867,000 of damage was done. In all but one case, contractor digging was the cause.

Las Vegas sits astride four major pipelines that bring energy to the desert — gasoline and diesel fuel for cars and trucks, jet fuel for airplanes at McCarran International Airport and Nellis Air Force Base, and natural gas for 600,000 homes and businesses in Clark County.

The largest and oldest is the 550-mile Calnev pipeline from Colton, Calif., a distribution point for Los Angeles area oil refineries. The Calnev system, separate 14-inch and 8-inch pipes that run parallel to each other, carries up to 5.4 million gallons of gasoline, jet fuel and diesel fuel daily.

It provides 90 percent of the gasoline used in Las Vegas, according to Calnev owner Kinder-Morgan and environmental impact reports for a planned $426 million expansion of the pipeline. Fuels are separated at a Kinder-Morgan terminal near Nellis. The terminal has tanks that hold almost 50 million gallons of petroleum product.

As for jet fuel, McCarran has a 25.3 million-gallon fuel “farm” linked to the Calnev pipeline. At Nellis Air Force Base, there’s 4.2 million gallons of storage in military and vendor tanks, according to base environmental impact reports.

A newer petroleum pipeline, the UNEV, runs 425 miles from Salt Lake City to North Las Vegas. The 12-inch pipe can bring in more than 2.5 million gallons of refined petroleum product each day. A new terminal in North Las Vegas is scheduled to open this spring and will store almost 9.5 million gallons.

Through a process called “batching,” pipeline operators can send different kinds of fuel for different customers through the same pipeline. Carefully metered product is put in one end , then is separated at the destination depot.

Southwest Gas gets most of its natural gas from the Kern River Gas Transmission Company of Salt Lake City. Las Vegas homes and businesses use natural gas piped in from oil and gas fields in southwestern Wyoming. The line includes 36- and 42-inch pipes capable of carrying 2.17 billion cubic feet of gas per day, enough to power 24,000 average American homes for a year. From Las Vegas, the pipeline carries on across the Mojave and eventually ends near Bakersfield, Calif.

The last major pipeline connects Southwest Gas to Texas.

While natural gas comes in at high pressure, Southwest steps it down so when it reaches customers, it is at relatively low pressure. Natural gas just out of the well is largely odorless, but companies inject the chemical mercaptan into it to give it a “rotten egg” smell that’s readily detectable for safety.

Why not outlaw them?

If hazardous materials are so dangerous, why are they allowed?

Simply put, we need them in our daily lives.

Chlorine is used in water treatment; ammonia is required for refrigeration and cold storage; gas enables transportation and commerce; mining operations provide materials for electrical components. Vehicles are a mass of life-threatening materials.

“As a society, we have to weigh the benefits and costs,” said UNLV professor Helen Neill, an expert in environmental economics, management, economic valuation and risk. “We have to make good choices and have good plans in place for minimizing the impacts of accidents.

“To think in terms of zero, or not taking into consideration the impacts; neither is efficient from a societal standpoint.”

Environmental engineering philosophy talks about “the triple bottom line:” private benefits and costs, social costs and the environment. Today’s environmental engineers strive to build processes and products that minimize adverse impacts and stress efficiency and sustainability, Neill said.

Who's got our back

One man’s nightmare

In the words of Richard Brenner, Clark County Fire Department hazmat coordinator:

My biggest nightmare would be a train derailment in a populated area. Pipelines are sometimes in close proximity to the railroad. Now, I have two transportation modes involved.

As a public safety official, I would need to be concerned about fire, explosion, toxicity (various hazardous materials on the train and the hazardous material in the pipeline) and potential contamination to air, soil, and water. I would also need to be concerned about evacuation of individuals — business and residential.

We are probably talking about a 1-to-2-square-mile evacuation. I would need to work with emergency management to shelter and feed evacuees (people and animals), and for how long? One day, two days, who knows?

The scope of hazardous materials being moved across the Las Vegas Valley is breathtaking.

Trucks carry millions of tons of chemicals and other dangerous materials on roads and highways. Pipelines push tens of millions of gallons of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, and billions of cubic feet of natural gas through pipes that crisscross the valley. Trains haul all manner of hazardous cargo on tracks next to busy highways, buildings and neighborhoods.

The opportunity for catastrophe is ever present, and the consequences could be severe. Standing four-square against it, however, are battalions of women and men committed to public safety.

“We are an all-hazard organization that responds when anyone calls,” said Eric Moon, captain of the Las Vegas City Fire Department. “Any type of emergency call, we’ll come out, and we’ll make it better.”

Moon’s unit is the only hazmat team in Southern Nevada. Based out of Fire Department Station 3, the 20-member squad has the area’s only Chemical Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) equipped unit. It responds to all hazmat emergencies that exceed the capabilities of neighboring county and city departments.

It’s Moon’s firefighters who don “space suits” and plug holes in busted metal tanks or pipes, or fight chemical fires or leaks as police and other firefighters evacuate people from danger zones.

“They go in and stabilize the situation,” department spokesman Tim Szymanski said. “They are there for public safety, to ensure nobody gets hurt. They are not there to clean up. That is the responsibility of the person responsible for the cargo or the accident.”

Last year, the unit answered 12 critical response calls.

The bible for this brotherhood is the “Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Plan,” a 226-page tome that governs what happens when the unimaginable happens.

The product of the Clark County Local Emergency Planning Committee, the plan covers all public entities, including federal, state, county and municipal government agencies, water and flood control districts, the school district, tribal councils, the Southern Nevada Health District, even the coroner’s office. Linked to it are plans for alerting hospitals and activating their emergency response procedures. It also outlines an “Incident Command System” which establishes who does what on the site of a mishap or disaster.

“We’ve learned from our history,” said Irene Navis, Clark County Fire Department plans and operations coordinator. “There are no turf wars.”

“This plan, and continuing multi-agency training, promotes collaboration and cooperation rather than competition,” said Richard Brenner, county fire department hazmat coordinator. “We all live in this little bowl. We have to cooperate.”

How would emergency responders deal with a hazardous material release?

Shawn White, Henderson Fire Department deputy chief of operations, said information gathering would begin immediately.

“We would want to know information about the container ­— 55-gallon drum or tank car. Contents. Of course, exact location. Even weather in case of a gas release. Which direction will the plume move? We need to know which direction to evacuate,” he said. “The system is in place and we ramp up, and up and up depending on the circumstance.”

• In the case of a tank car with a poisonous chemical, four engine companies, 22 firefighters and two battalion chiefs likely would be rolled out. They would work to obtain a cargo manifest, which train engineers must carry.

• One battalion chief would command activities at the site, while the other would coordinate with other agencies and maintain department operations away from the site. “Even during this, people in other parts of the city will still be getting in accidents and having heart attacks,” White said. “Things don’t just stop just because you have a crisis.”

• Unlike in TV dramas, firefighters wouldn’t automatically rush in — even if people’s lives were in danger. Some materials are so dangerous that standard-issue fire gear is insufficient protection.

• Firefighters and police would set up a perimeter, evacuating people to safe locations, then wait for hazmat teams to arrive. In addition to a local fire department team, Union Pacific, pipeline operators and Southwest Gas all have highly trained personnel who respond to incidents.

• Emergency personnel would evacuate people from a 300-foot area if a gas is involved, 150 feet if a liquid is involved and 75 feet if a solid is involved.

• Every police and fire unit in the valley has a copy of a 400-page paperback guide that helps first responders identify dangerous substances and lists standard operating procedure for hazmat situations, including immediate action, evacuation and decontamination.

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