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Transfer timing remains a secret



Published: Mon, September 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Officials aren't saying when the radioactive waste shipment will occur, but it hasn't happened yet.

By PAUL WHEATLEY

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

HUBBARD -- John Hill drives trains for a living.

He's worked for the train industry since 1971 and says area residents and officials should be more concerned about daily shipments of hazardous materials across railways rather than fret over shipments of radioactive materials that are scheduled to run through the Mahoning Valley by train sometime soon.

Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency officials estimate that 300 million shipments of hazardous materials are made in the United States each year, and about 10 percent of those shipments travel through here.

Train engineers, who Hill says are often sleep-deprived, make the shipments across deteriorating rails. He said shipments of crude oil and some acids are the most common.

Short notice: Few will know when radioactive waste, handled by the U.S. Department of Energy, actually moves through Lowellville, Struthers, Campbell and parts of Youngstown and Trumbull County. Even then, they'll be given only a 24-hour notice.

The transfer of spent nuclear fuel from New York to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Scoville remains a secret to thwart terrorist activity.

Emergency Management Agency officials only say it hasn't happened yet.

But when it does, Hill said, special precautions will be taken.

U The train will probably have 12 cars, or fewer, attached to it.

U It will probably be driven much slower than it's capable of.

U The shipments will be monitored by satellite.

U The track will likely be inspected four hours before the trip.

"There will be enough officials on that locomotive that there won't be enough seats," he said.

What's normal: This is opposed to the other 364 days a year when engineers operate trains carrying more than 150 cars, moving across shabby track, at speeds reaching 40 to 50 mph while working on three hours of sleep.

"Before, if you ran 100 miles, that was considered a long trip. Now, if you go 250 to 300 miles, that's the norm," said Hill.

Engineers are on call 24 hours a day and work anywhere from six to seven days a week.

"You never know when you're going to work and it really does play havoc on your sleep cycle and your married life," said Hill, who is married and has two teen-age sons.

Job requirements: And there's a lot more to driving a train than meets the eye.

Hill explains it like this: Operating a freight train is like trying to control an 11,000-ton Slinky, moving both uphill and downhill at a specified speed, maintaining complete control at all times, while answering the automated detectors for hot wheels or dragging equipment and watching the rail, blowing the whistle for road crossings and being aware of temporary speed restrictions.

The U.S. Department of Energy is taking another precaution to safeguard against human error: Radioactive materials will be shipped in specialized casks weighing up to 120 tons each that will be used to store the waste in Idaho until a permanent repository is identified.

Walter Duzzny, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, said he wishes other materials were shipped in similar casks.

Instead, Hill said, anything from cooking oil to chlorine is moved by rail in plain tanker cars.

Worn or broken rails and broken wheels can cause an accident, and Hill believes it's only a matter of time before a big one occurs.

Struthers resident Tracy Shibely lives on Broad Street, within a stone's throw of the radioactive shipment route, a rail that sees trains about every half-hour.

She's lived here 11 years and has seen a few train accidents over that time, but she's not worried about another one occurring.

"They don't tell us when those special ones go," she said. "We just sit outside and watch them go by. As long as nothing happens, I don't care."

Shibely said the train accidents usually involved automobiles and occurred before the Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge was built last year. She hasn't seen a problem since the bridge, which spans the railroad, went up.

wheatley@vindy.com




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