Q&A: Randall Roby 

Planning officer with the Memphis/Shelby County Emergency Management Agency

Though Memphis' status as a distribution center has its perks, it can also have a downside.

During City Council discussions last year about stationary trains blocking streets, members were also concerned about the amount of hazardous materials traveling through the community by rail and the possibility of dangerous chemical spills.

Such an accident happened last week on Presidents Island when two tanker cars derailed, spilling sodium bisulfite onto the limestone bedding surrounding the rail line. Headed to the Cargill factory, the chemical would have been used to remove impurities from corn syrup.

Randall Roby of the Memphis/Shelby County Emergency Management Agency was on the scene overseeing a clean-up crew. He says sodium bisulfite can cause burns but is only harmful with skin contact. According to a data sheet on the chemical, the solution is relatively non-toxic but can release a toxic gas when exposed to excessive heat. -- by Bianca Phillips

Flyer: Did the chemical seep into the soil?

Roby: It stayed on the limestone bedding around the rail line, which was the best place it could have spilled. It's a low-grade acid, and the limestone acted as a base, which helped to counteract the chemical. The clean-up company used soda ash to further neutralize the chemical. Then, at that point, it's perfectly safe, so it cannot harm anyone.

Could it cause any long-term environmental damage?

No, it was completely removed.

What's the cost for this kind of clean-up? Who pays for it?

The railroad is the one paying for it. They contracted with the clean-up company, and since it was a railroad accident, they'll be taking care of it financially. How much it'll cost, I have absolutely no idea.

With acid burns a possibility, what protective gear did the clean-up crew wear?

Our fire department personnel assisted the railroad in stopping the leak, and they wore what we call a level-B chemical protective garment. It provides the utmost in skin protection, but it's open around the face. They wore a scrubber-type respirator, like a gas mask.

How common are chemical spills in Memphis?

Accidents of this type do occur several times a year. There's always the potential that you're going to have some of these materials on board, especially in Memphis, since we're a distribution center. A lot of materials move up and down our roads and up and down our rails.

But most of the time, [spills] are very small and there's no long-term effects to the environment and no threat to the public at large. Occasionally, there are accidents much larger in scale, but those are rare.

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