Secret shipments: 11 billion pounds of chemicals carried by rail in South Dakota each year
State and local officials often kept largely in the dark about what materials are being carried
Each year, trains carry nearly 11 billion pounds of chemicals through South Dakota’s cities and countryside, much of it on century-old tracks, a South Dakota News Watch analysis has revealed.
Finding out which specific compounds are in those potentially toxic payloads is extremely difficult or even impossible for the public due to national security concerns and secrecy within railroad companies.
In many cases, state and local officials are kept largely in the dark about what materials are being carried through communities and rural areas. Oftentimes, the nature of materials transported becomes known only after an accident.
State and local governments can ask railroad companies for lists of hazardous materials transported through their jurisdictions only if the information would be used to help them prepare for emergencies, but not to inform the public, according to an email from the public affairs department at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
“Neither FRA nor any government agency can provide information that lists specific rail lines that hazardous material shipments traverse, as railroads consider such information to be proprietary, and doing so raises safety and security issues,” the office said. “In addition, as a federal safety regulator, FRA does not monitor train movements or types of cargo transported by private rail companies in real time.”
Concerns over the stability, security and safety of the U.S. railroad system took on greater significance after a catastrophic derailment and fire on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.
The accident was caused by a worn-out wheel bearing on a tanker car, the same condition that prompted 17 freight cars to derail at 40 mph near Wessington, South Dakota, on Feb. 2, 2019, according to federal records.
The toxic chemical burned in the Ohio accident, vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastics, is part of the larger category of chemicals that can be carried by trains in South Dakota but which is not reported to the public.
Some Great Plains states, such as Minnesota and Wyoming, report on the total tonnage of hazardous materials carried by rail in their states, but South Dakota does not.
The South Dakota State Rail Plan, a 182-page overview of the state railroad system, includes information on 15 categories of materials carried by rail but not on hazardous materials.
In South Dakota, “chemicals or allied products” are the fourth most-carried product by railroads based on tonnage after coal, farm products and food products, according to the 2022 State Rail Plan, which was updated in December for the first time since 2014.
In South Dakota in 2019, the payload category of “crude petroleum, natural gas or gasoline” was next in tonnage after chemicals, totaling 7.3 billion pounds carried annually.
According to federal documents, the general payload category of “chemicals and allied products” can also include chemicals and products such as anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, human and animal medicines, pesticides, inks and dyes, and even radioactive compounds or those used in chemical warfare.
In an email response to questions, Jack Dokken, the air, rail and transit program manager for the South Dakota Department of Transportation, said the federal government is responsible for regulating rail shipments in South Dakota, but the state can respond to a release of hazardous materials.
Transportation officials from North Dakota and Wyoming told News Watch they have little knowledge about what chemicals and hazardous materials private railroad companies are carrying through their states.
“At a guess, petroleum, natural gas, and anhydrous ammonia are probably in our top three for hazmat, but after that it’s anyone’s guess – and I have no idea on volumes or routes being used,” said Stewart Milakovic, North Dakota DOT transportation planner.
Across the U.S., hazardous materials were the second-most commonly transported material by rail from 2019-21 based on tonnage, with 218 million tons carried in 2021 alone, according to the federal Surface Transportation Board.
The South Dakota rail plan includes estimates that tonnage of materials transported by rail could increase by 34% by 2045, including an expected 31% rise in chemicals transported.
While U.S. per-mile safety data show that rail generally remains relatively safe, rural states like South Dakota tend to have aged rail systems, with materials sometimes built in the late 1800s or early 1900s, said Russell Quimby, an Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad expert and industry consultant.
Some rail lines, especially shorter branch lines that are common in South Dakota, are not well-equipped to handle modern rail cars that weigh up to 286,000 pounds each and are part of increasingly longer trains, he said.
Additionally, some older rail lines have not had adequate reinvestment by railroad companies.
“They’re barely able to do things safely in some cases,” Quimby said. “Even if you identified all these defects in the track, does the company have enough money to fix things properly? They may put a Band-Aid on it when they really should be treating a broken bone.”
Meanwhile, the railroad industry is staffed in some cases by employees who are vastly overworked, Quimby said. "They’re cutting all kinds of corners, and after a while, you get employees who are burned out, and that indirectly affects safety, morale and all that.”
State data show that South Dakota had 105 “incidents and accidents” reported to the FRA from 2012 to 2021, according to the state rail plan, and another nine accidents in 2022. All told, those accidents resulted in two deaths and 83 injuries among railroad workers, the data show.
Derailments and other railroad emergencies have taken place in South Dakota at the rate of roughly one every five weeks over the past six years, according to FRA accident reports.
Mechanical problems and railroad wear played a role in a number of derailments:
• On June 26, 2017, six rail cars derailed due to a broken segment of track near Gayville in Yankton County.
• On June 5, 2020, train workers could see the track ahead was misaligned near Harrold in Hughes County, causing eight cars to derail at 24 mph due to soft ground believed to be caused by a muskrat den.
• On Sept. 18, 2022, nine rail cars derailed while traveling at 23 mph near Utica in Yankton County due to missing joint bolts on the rail line.
Those state rail accident reports don’t include accidents that happened at highway rail crossings. South Dakota had 110 railroad crossing accidents over the past decade that resulted in six fatalities, 35 injuries and 69 incidents of property damage, according to state records.
In the state’s most destructive rail accident in recent years, a derailment and explosion of several ethanol cars occurred on Sept. 19, 2015, in a rural area near Lesterville, about 20 miles northwest of Yankton.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board later found that rail heads that support train wheels were worn beyond safe levels, tracks were out of alignment and safety problems noted by railroad operator BNSF were not repaired but instead allowed to remain when the railroad simply downgraded the technical classification of the rail line.
Records show the section of railroad was built in 1908 and installed in 1929. The wooden railroad bridge where the accident took place was built in 1954.
Even at just 10 mph, seven tanker cars flipped off the rails, and two breached at impact. Nearly 50,000 gallons of ethanol leaked onto the ground and into the bed of Prairie Creek, where it ignited in a wall of flame. No one was injured, but the accident caused $1.1 million in damage.
South Dakota rail carriers are preparing for trouble this year because of the potential for flooding and soft ground.
“The scary factor of that is we get into April and temperatures start to rise too fast and we get some overland flooding, and so we’re prepping and preparing for any unforeseen issues. We’ll be dealing with some soft spot issues down there and we’ll do everything we can to minimize any issues or problems," Mark Trottier, a representative of the Dakota Missouri Valley Western Railroad, told the South Dakota Railroad Board during a March 15 meeting.
Railroad companies are private entities and are not required by law to provide the public with details on what is carried, when and where, said Tom Ciuba, a spokesman for the Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern railroad.
“For security reasons and to uphold shipper confidentiality, RCPE does not release specifics on our traffic,” Ciuba said in an email to News Watch.
RCPE performs safety checks on its rail lines and equipment as required by federal law and its own internal standards. It considers “derailment prevention critical to that safety focus,” Ciuba said.
Quimby, the railroad expert, said that despite recent accidents and a few historic catastrophes, rail remains the safest and most economical way to ship goods, especially when compared to high-risk roadway trucking and cost-intensive pipeline construction.
“They move relatively safely, and compared to any other mode of transportation, you’re probably not going to get a safer way to do it,” he said.
— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.