A set of recent accidents on rails and highways should serve as an urgent warning that our region is headed for an entirely preventable disaster of similar proportions.

A train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3 caused a fire that burned for two days, releasing hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the air. As a result, residents within a one-mile radius were evacuated, and an emergency response was initiated from agencies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The extent of the damage to public health and the local ecology is still being determined by authorities, but anecdotal reports of strange illnesses are widespread, and the local economy is already taking what might be a death blow. Nobody wants to travel to East Palestine. And soon, no one may be able to safely live there.

Eleven days later, on Feb. 14, a truck hauling a box trailer overturned on a perfectly straight part of I-10 just south of Tucson, between Rita and Kolb Roads, spilling liquid nitric acid, a highly toxic substance. The driver was killed, the highway was shut down in both directions for nearly 48 hours and evacuation and shelter-in-place orders were issued for the surrounding area, then lifted, then reinstated and expanded. 

Schools were ordered closed, and businesses were evacuated while residents and people trapped in cars were ordered to close windows and shut down air circulation equipment, a measure that would only slow down exposure, not avoid it.

With I-10 shut down, drivers used other routes, like SR83. Early in the morning of Feb. 15, icy conditions on SR83 caused two trailer trucks to jackknife. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, and there was no hazmat emergency this time, only inconvenience to other road users. 

But that is no reason to celebrate. Very soon, there will be trucks hauling hazardous materials driving on SR82 and SR83 – not because I-10 is temporarily closed, but because that will be their regular route. And it won’t be just a few trucks, or somebody hauling a box trailer. It will be up to 200 trucks per day, traveling on narrow, winding, unlit rural roads.

These trucks will be associated with South32’s planned Hermosa Mine operations. As I wrote in my previous PRT op-ed piece (“Hermosa Mine Trucks on SR 82 and SR 83 – Really?”, Nov. 2020), many of these trucks will be moving large volumes of toxic mine concentrates and process chemicals back and forth to a still-to-be determined rail road connection. 

SR82, and SR83, which are AZDOT recognized Scenic Routes, and Harshaw Road are simply not appropriate routes for that kind of transport of hazardous material, or the volume of truck traffic that South32 is proposing. School buses, first responders, visitors to local wineries, passenger cars, motorcycles and bicycles will all be forced to share the road with South32 truck traffic. 

These recent accidents in East Palestine, Tucson, and on SR83 drive home why transports of toxic materials need to be regulated more stringently. AZDOT already has (only one!) sign placed in Nogales recommending, not mandating, trucks use I-19 rather than SR82. Toxic spills will come our way, literally, if no drastic measures are taken to protect public safety, property value, public health and the environment.