CHATHAM–It arrived late at night but not stealthily, at least not to anyone awake to hear the thumps and bangs and occasional air brake squeals as the decoupled car was shunted onto a siding. It sat unattended the next morning, a gray gondola no different from hundreds–thousands when the economy is stronger and trains run more frequently–of similar cars that roll along the CSX railroad tracks every day. The only distinguishing markers besides the stenciled railroad codes and some white spray paint graffiti were the small, yellow-and-white, diamond-shaped signs, one on each wall of the car, bearing a familiar three-wedge symbol and a single word, “Radioactive.”
The gondola was detached from a westbound freight train and parked at the Chatham siding early on the morning of August 8. The car sat about 50 yards from the edge of the Chatham Middle School playground and sports field. A summer program for kids used the field that week.
On a second try I reached Michael Lunsford through the CSX company headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla. He is with the Chemical Safety division of the rail company and is familiar with the handling of hazardous materials. Using the number on the gondola he told me that it had a “wheel problem” and that it showed on his computer screen as “being repaired.”
He said the signs were correct and that the car did have a load of radioactive material, but that the radioactivity was present at “very, very low levels.”
He said such cargo is usually naturally contaminated soil, which the industry refers to as “dirty dirt.” Federal regulations require that when this type of material is dug up it must be disposed of at a designated hazardous waste site. This load was on its way from Massachusetts to a burial site in Utah. “There are no public safety issues associated with it,” Mr. Lunsford said.
He asked whether the car had a tarp over the top. I said I didn’t know because that would have required climbing up the car to look, and the signs were an effective deterrent for me.
The only other sign on the gondola was for “MHF Logistical Solutions.” An employee at MHF company headquarters in Pittsburgh said he did not know what the material was in the gondola, but he promised that someone from the company would provide that information. No response had come in by press deadline this week.
Columbia County Emergency Management Director Bill Black had not heard about the gondola when I called him August 14. He checked with the Sheriff’s Office and Emergency 911, and neither of those agencies had received any information about the car either. He said the railroad would report hazardous materials to the Department of Transportation and the Department of Health, but he said, “Normally, if it’s radioactive, they should at least notify the local fire department.”
Neither the county nor the state health departments were aware of any radioactive materials in Chatham.
Mr. Lunsford said that shipments of “dirty dirt” are regulated by the federal Department of Transportation and that agency allows the shipments based on the condition that “no radioactivity can be detected outside the car.”
There was no sign that the car or its contents had been tampered with, and no sign that any of the material inside was escaping, but at the end of the call, Mr. Lunsford said, “I’ll make a few calls and see if we can get it on its way.”
That was late Friday afternoon, August 14. By the next morning, a week after it arrived, the gondola was gone.