Sinkhole may be to blame for Whitemarsh train derailment

One of the derailed train cars leaked non-hazardous white silicone pellets, township officials said.

by Kenny Cooper, WHYY
Posted 7/19/23

A CSX train derailed in Whitemarsh Township on Monday morning near Joshua Road and Stenton Avenue.

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Sinkhole may be to blame for Whitemarsh train derailment

One of the derailed train cars leaked non-hazardous white silicone pellets, township officials said.


A CSX train derailed in Whitemarsh Township on Monday morning near Joshua Road and Stenton Avenue. The derailment happened on tracks operated by Norfolk Southern.

There are no reported injuries or any known hazard to the general public. State, county, and local townships gave an update on the response during a Monday morning press conference at the township municipal building.

A spokesperson from CSX told WHYY News in a written statement that the entire length of the train was 40 railcars. CSX believes the cause of the incident “to be weather related” and that conditions created a “sinkhole in the rail bed.”

Whitemarsh Emergency Services dispatched first responders to the Plymouth Meeting area at 4:55 a.m. alongside various Montgomery County agencies.

“Montgomery County drone operators located the 15-car train derailment on a Norfolk Southern rail line between Flourtown Road and Joshua Road in Whitemarsh Township,” said Chris Schwartz, fire chief at Barren Hill Volunteer Fire Company. “Incident commanders coordinated with hazmat specialists on the potential for a hazardous materials leak. Rail concern indicated that the train contained two empty tankers, five cars containing urea, which is a liquid fertilizer, and one car containing tetrachloroethylene.”

Tetrachloroethylene, which is used as a degreaser and as a dry cleaning agent, is not flammable, but it is toxic. According to officials, one of the container cars spilled non-hazardous white silicone pellets. The car weighed close to 190,000 pounds when full.

“Out of an abundance of caution” first responders evacuated 12 nearby residences to Whitemarsh Elementary School. Shortly afterwards at 9:28 a.m., all evacuated residents were able to return. All train personnel were safely rescued from the derailment. There were no injuries.

Representatives from Norfolk Southern and CSX are on the scene and coordinating a response. Officials have been using Highway Materials Inc.’s quarry as an easy access point to the site.

“Once we were able to turn the incident back to the railroad companies, we were able to clear the evacuation and open the highways going forward. There will be, we believe, a limited impact on our highways and our residents as they do the recovery of the train,” Whitemarsh Police Chief Christopher Ward said.

Ward said it is the intention of the rail companies to have the line up and running again by Wednesday evening. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has since been notified of the derailment and will oversee the train recovery effort.

Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence said the county’s hazmat team walked along the tracks to inspect the railcars for signs of damage and check for any leaks of materials.

“The county always stands ready to assist our municipal partners with the coordination of and response to incidents like this,” Lawrence said.

The rail companies have called on contractors to assist with the cleanup and recovery efforts. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will oversee the clean up of the silicone pellets to ensure that none of it makes its way into the Wissahickon Creek.

Currently, the pellets are contained to the hillside. While the pellets and the urea are not a major cause of concern, the railcar causing some worry is the one containing tetrachloroethylene. The rail car is tilted in some fashion.

“The car we’re working with [and] coordinating with the quarry and everything is the tetrachloroethylene. That’s the one that more people have concerns with. The urea is not a concern, but we’re obviously watching the handling of that as well. I mean, it is perched right above the quarry,” said Ben Russell, an emergency response program coordinator with the DEP.

Russell said some of the loaded cars in the back of the train that did not derail contained liquefied petroleum gas, but the hazmat crews checked them and determined they were not leaking. The rail companies will be relocating them back to where they originated.

WHYY News reached out to Norfolk Southern for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.

Norfolk Southern has faced scrutiny in recent months for its role in the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3. While no one was hurt when the Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous material derailed, the incident resulted in toxic waste seeping into the surrounding environment along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

Ohio is currently suing Norfolk Southern. Shortly after the incident, Gov. Josh Shapiro made a criminal referral to the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office. An April New York Times investigation into Norfolk Southern found the company’s train safety standards have plummeted in recent years due to job cuts and internal pressure to quicken delivery speeds.