Columbia and USC are working furiously to prepare for a train wreck and chemical leak that could prove disastrous in the state's largest city.
But if notable shortcomings are not resolved, residents could be left in the dark and vulnerable during an emergency. Trains hauling explosive, flammable and poisonous chemicals pass within a half-mile of nearly two dozen Columbia schools, more than 200 government buildings and thousands of homes virtually every day. About 47 percent of the city's 117,000 residents live within a half-mile of the tracks.
If Columbia experienced a train wreck similar to the one in Graniteville four months ago, far more people would be at risk of injury or death, emergency officials say. The Graniteville wreck killed nine people after chlorine spilled from a train in the small community near Aiken.
"Our exposure would be much higher," Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson said. "We've got more rail lines coming through town, and we have more population to be exposed. It's definitely a threat."
Anderson and other officials are working to improve and refine the Columbia area's response. Officials believe they are better prepared than those in most parts of South Carolina to respond to such a wreck, but they acknowledge there are problems.
Among the shortfalls:
* Warning residents. Unlike Richland County, the city of Columbia doesn't have a sophisticated "reverse 911" telephone system to quickly warn the public of danger. Columbia has had problems for years letting people know quickly about possible dangers.
* Warning students. The university is seeking federal money for campuswide sirens and loudspeakers to tell students and faculty of looming dangers such as a train wreck.
* Chemical mysteries. Columbia and USC don't know exactly which chemicals flow through town by train each year, making it harder to prepare for disaster response. They recently found out that information was available and now are seeking a list.
* Lack of full-time specialists. Columbia doesn't have a hazardous-materials response team that handles only toxic spills. City hazardous-materials experts now also respond to general fire calls.
In addition to those concerns, area school districts are updating response plans for a chemical emergency, officials say.
And last week, USC officials met to discuss how they would advise students and faculty to react after a railroad crash and chemical leak.
Only the Greenville-Spartanburg area sees more hazardous-materials railroad traffic in South Carolina than Columbia, said Mike Stiner, an official with the Norfolk Southern railroad company.
Norfolk Southern hauls more than 10,000 shipments of hazardous materials through Columbia in a given year, Stiner said. It was a Norfolk Southern train that wrecked in Graniteville.
CSX, the state's other major carrier, would not comment. But Stiner said CSX hauls more hazardous materials nationally than Norfolk Southern.
"You're on what we call a hazardous-materials" route, Stiner said.
That's important, considering where the rail lines are.
According to the city's mapping department, 55,876 people, or about 47 percent, of Columbia's citizens, live within a half-mile of a railroad track.
Think you're safe outside the city? Tracks pass within a half-mile of 41 percent of the residents in Richland and Lexington counties.
More than 20 schools in or immediately adjacent to Columbia lie within the same distance of railroad tracks, according to the city and Richland County mapping divisions. Those schools include C.A. Johnson Preparatory Academy, South Kilbourne Elementary School and Spring Valley High School, the county reported.
That's in addition to USC, Benedict College, Allen University, Columbia College and the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.
Major rail routes pass within a half-mile of the State House, the SouthTrust building and USC's Capstone House dorm, all among the most visible landmarks in town.
In downtown Columbia, which is criss-crossed by tracks, about 40,000 people are at work on any given day, according to the City Center Partnership of Columbia.
The VA hospital, Palmetto Richland, Palmetto Baptist and Providence hospitals also are within a half-mile of a track, as are the Colonial Center and Riverbanks Zoo.
In Irmo, most of District 5's schools are within a quarter-mile of a major rail line, district safety coordinator Michael Poole said. Those include Irmo High School and Crossroads Middle School.
Columbia never has had a hazardous-materials accident on the scale of Graniteville's, but it has had its share of smaller chemical accidents on railroads.
More than three dozen hazardous-materials spills have occurred on Richland and Lexington county railroads since the early 1990s, according to the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center. The center keeps records of reported chemical spills.
Those include leaks of sodium hydroxide, oil, phenol and acids, the center's database shows. One occurred as recently as April 13, when phenols escaped through the dome of a tank car, the database shows.
City leaders say they need to improve communication with the public regarding major disasters or health threats.
The city has had problems with this in the past, most recently when a boiler exploded at an industrial plant on South Beltline Boulevard. The city had trouble getting the word out to people who had lost power that it was safe to stay in their homes.
Columbia in 2002 failed to warn 300 restaurants from the Congaree Vista to Garners Ferry Road about water contamination after a main water line break.
The city now is considering whether to buy what's commonly called a "reverse 911" system. It is expected to cost about $80,000.
The system would call every telephone number in a part of town affected by an emergency to relay information, such as whether to remain in homes or evacuate an area.
Richland County already has such a system, but Anderson said it would allow Columbia direct control over communications in an incident specific to the city.
Mayor Bob Coble said police and fire would be used to evacuate neighborhoods or warn the public if a major chemical leak occurred, but the reverse 911 system would supplement the city's emergency response effort.
Coble, who said the Graniteville wreck heightened awareness of potential train disasters, said the public also needs certain basic information on how to respond during times of emergency.
People should know, for instance, how to react if an emergency threatened the community and knocked out power, making it impossible to get information by television or radio.
"It's public awareness of how you get information," Coble said.
He said the city still needs to come up with what it wants to communicate with the public.
Train wrecks certainly are a concern at USC, an urban school with 23,500 students and 162 buildings on its downtown Columbia campus.
At least four major railroad lines run beside or through campus. Trains sometimes rattle dorm windows because they are so close.
Tom Syfert, director of environmental health and safety at USC, said university officials are keenly aware of the threat a train wreck could present.
"We have . . . all these people near lines and a potential for a release," Syfert said. "We need to know what to do in case of an emergency."
Like every state and local agency, USC already has extensive plans to respond in the event of an emergency. Those plans cover dorm and classroom evacuations, but Syfert said USC is trying improve its readiness.
He said the university has requested a $150,000 federal grant to buy sirens and loudspeakers for the campus in the event of a chemical leak that required quick warning.
It would allow USC to say "please move to higher ground," Syfert said. A decision on the grant is expected by fall.
Not everyone is sold on the idea. The state Emergency Management Division has said sirens might confuse people. Howard Lederfind, Columbia's emergency management director, said he also sees little need for them. The city once had World-War II-era air- raid sirens, but they no longer are used.
In addition to adding a warning system to campus, USC emergency response personnel will in coming months begin assessing all campus buildings to prepare for a train-related chemical leak.
The university wants to know which buildings can best repel poisonous gases, Syfert said. That could prove important in knowing whether to evacuate people immediately or advise them to stay inside.
During a meeting Wednesday, USC's emergency response team agreed that, when possible, it is best for students and faculty to remain inside buildings if a tanker car spilled hazardous materials.
Syfert said the team's thinking is based on advice from Norfolk Southern and research it has done since the Graniteville wreck.
Stiner, Norfolk Southern's assistant manager for hazardous materials, said a general rule is for people to remain in buildings if chemicals are leaking off site, rather than running outside and into a toxic cloud. The response method is called "shelter-in-place."
A teenager trapped in a car near the Graniteville chlorine leak survived because he remained in the vehicle, Stiner told fire and USC officials during a recent conference.
"The plans depend on the product involved, the wind speed, the time of day, atmospheric conditions," Stiner said. "But generally speaking, shelter-in-place is the way to go.
"We found animals outside that were dead at Graniteville. But the people inside were OK."
With a chlorine leak, such as the one at Graniteville, it's also safer to be uphill from a railroad track, because chlorine sinks, Stiner said. Gases and vapors of some other materials, such as anhydrous ammonia, also will sink if exposed to air.
Low-lying buildings, for instance, would be more prone to contamination from chlorine and other toxic gases that tend to sink and stay low to the ground after a leak. Some other toxic products that tend to sink are butane and propane, among the most common hazardous materials shipped by rail.
Buildings most vulnerable to heavy gases include the university's engineering building on South Main Street and the Gateway child-care center and the Blatt Physical Education Center, both on Wheat Street, Syfert said.
A chlorine leak from a train also could have painful impacts on Five Points, the shopping-and-entertainment village adjacent to campus. A rail line rises above Five Points just south of campus. Poisonous, heavier-than-air gases would be more likely to descend on Five Points if a train wrecked and leaked the toxins.
"I would want to be uphill, on the top story of a building," Stiner said.
MOCK DRILLS AT SCHOOLS
USC isn't the only school preparing for the worst.
In Irmo after the Graniteville wreck, Lexington-Richland 5 held a mock drill to prepare for a train leaking toxic gas. The district practiced sealing a middle school with tape and turning off ventilation systems. The idea is to keep chemically polluted air from drifting inside.
"We know this is bad stuff, and if it happens near a school, we need to be prepared for it," said Poole, District 5's security and safety director.
Richland Districts 1 and 2 - with District 5 among the largest and most urban in the Midlands - have not gone that far. But officials said they are assessing their response.
One complication in trying to seal off a school, Poole acknowledged, is design. Newer schools could be easier to seal than some older, draftier buildings, he said.
Joe Fraley, director of security and emergency planning in Richland 1, was to have met recently with principals to discuss emergency response plans. He declined further comment about the meeting.
"We are looking at things, after Graniteville, to revisit," Fraley said. "We do have some schools in close proximity" to railroad tracks.
District 2 spokesman Ken Blackstone said the district had a mock disaster drill in January to prepare for an emergency. Plans were already moving along before the Graniteville crash, but the disaster heightened the importance of the drill, he said.
"If there is a good side to an emergency like Graniteville, it allows you to look at things and say, "If this were to happen in our school district, would be we prepared?" he said.
"Safety and security is an ongoing process."
One of the most basic concerns, city officials say, is finding out exactly which chemicals flow through town.
By long-standing policy, railroad companies will not tell cities in advance which hazardous chemicals they are bringing through town.
The only signs local firefighters, emergency personnel and police have are placards on the side of rail cars. But seeing those placards can be a challenge from a distance. And if a car full of hazardous chemicals is involved directly in a train wreck, it might be impossible to see the placard, as was the case in Graniteville.
That adds time to the emergency response because rescue units must try to determine what is leaking, then how to respond.
"The ability to respond quickly is one of the primary concerns,'' Anderson said.
In an attempt to remedy the situation, Coble has joined other mayors nationally in seeking advanced notice of hazardous-material shipments.
One way to provide information is via computer, he said. Such information would say which train was going through town at a certain time and what was on it.
"We need to have that information,'' Coble said. "We need to work with the federal government and the Department of Homeland Security.''
Now, rescue personnel "have to get a pair of binoculars.''
Coble said he opposes a federal plan to remove placards from railroad cars, which was prompted by a fear of terrorist attacks.
Short of resolving the issue at the federal level, railroads will tell fire and police departments what they already have brought through town in a year's time - as long as the departments don't tell the public.
Upon learning that the information was available about past shipments, Columbia and USC recently asked Norfolk Southern and CSX to supply lists of chemicals they haul through Columbia annually.
Firefighters then would know what they are facing.
LACK OF SPECIALISTS
Compared to much of South Carolina, Columbia and Richland County are wellequipped to respond to a hazardous-materials emergency, local officials say.
Richland County, for instance, has one of only four advanced hazardous-materials teams in South Carolina. The 180-member team is composed of specially trained firefighters, police and other emergency responders, said Michael Byrd, the county's emergency services director.
The Columbia Fire Department, which serves the city and the county, has a hazardous-materials response truck loaded with equipment to rescue people and battle a chemical leak. A four-man hazardous-materials crew is on duty 24 hours a day.
Columbia now is in the process of buying a new hazardous-materials truck with its own self-contained weather center.
Still, there are issues. Lexington County, for instance, does not have a hazardous-materials response team as sophisticated as the one in Columbia.
And the Columbia hazmat crew isn't solely responsible for hazardous-materials response.
If that crew were at a fire, it would take time to divert them to a hazardous-materials accident that might occur at about the same time. Firefighters say that has happened on occasion.
To solve the problem, Columbia would need to hire about 15 more firefighters at a cost of about $700,000, Anderson said. "We're in good shape, but getting a dedicated hazmat team would take us to a another plateau,'' he said.
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537 or email@example.com