ANNAPOLIS – The rate of hazardous material spills per year in Hagerstown has tripled since the 1990s, due in large part to one shipping site now owned by FedEx that recorded at least 197 spills in the past five years.
At the FedEx Freight East Service Center, just east of Route 81 near the Pennsylvania border, leaked chemicals ranged from lye (harmful to the eyes and skin) to sulfuric acid (contributes to acid rain) to ethanol (flammable) to muriatic/hydrochloric acid (harmful to the eyes and skin) to xylenes (harmful to the brain).
“There’s always a concern when hazardous materials are spilled,” said Chris Fick, field organizer for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. “The fact that the numbers have increased so much . . . seems to us that somebody should probably step in.”
Since 2000, incidents at the FedEx site accounted for most of the 250 spills in Hagerstown, the city at the mouth of Maryland’s rural panhandle and at the nexus of major highways.
But the site’s 197 spills alone exceed Hagerstown’s count during the entire ’90s — 173 — according to a database of hazmat spills in transit maintained by the Department of Transportation, which covers all modes of transportation through mid-2004.
“That basically represents about 1 percent of our entire fire/rescue activity,” said Joe Kroboth, chief of Emergency Services for Washington County, of the FedEx incidents, though his department may not have actually responded to all of them. “Those numbers surprise me, and that certainly raises my awareness.”
By comparison, the state of Maryland recorded fewer than 1,300 spills since 2000, considerably short of its high-water mark of nearly 2,000 spills in the ’90s.
And Baltimore — consistently the city with the state’s highest number of spills — saw a little more than half as many hazmat accidents since 2000 as it saw in the ’90s. For both Baltimore and Maryland, the rate per year rose, but hardly as dramatically as in Hagerstown.
At the FedEx site, spills have resulted in no injuries, no deaths, no explosions and no evacuations. And most of the leaks amounted to fewer than five pounds or gallons.
“A small or a large (spill), we’re concerned about any incident,” said Debra Phillips, FedEx Freight corporate’s managing director for communications, “and take it very seriously, take our responsibility very seriously.”
While she would not term the incidents “minor,” she did say hazmat spills could encompass anything from perfume to paint. Phillips could not gauge whether the 197 spills was unusually high, but said FedEx nationally transports about 40,000 hazardous material shipments every month.
The Hagerstown location, she said, handles 42,000 total shipments per month.
The fact that so many incidents were being reported could be a good sign, said John Bentley, chief of Washington County’s special operations team.
“Just picture the amount of industries . . . that do not report,” said Bentley. “If they’re taking the time to report . . . that would probably be one of the cleaner, safer facilities.”
But some in the city worry about the potential for harm. Most of the incidents at FedEx were a result of human error, as trucks loaded and unloaded material at this cargo transfer point.
“It does concern me,” said Linda Showalter, who lives near the FedEx business, as well as Routes 70 and 81, and an airport. She said she’s never heard of any spills near her.
“I do feel like we should be made aware. . . . I mean, I’ve got little grandchildren in the area as well,” said Showalter.
MaryPIRG’s Fick called the number of spills “obscene.”
But that number may not be unusual considering the high volume of shipments a company like FedEx handles, said Rich Moskowitz, assistant general counsel for the American Trucking Associations.
FedEx took over the Hagerstown site in early 2001 — about the time hazmat incidents began to be reported from the address in bulk to the Department of Transportation database — after it was previously operated by American Freightways.
“We monitor every incident,” said Phillips, “and monitor a number of different factors for each of our locations, with safety being one of them, and have ongoing education with our employees . . . we’re constantly looking at ways to improve.”
-30- CNS 12-17-04