Editor’s Note: This story is part of a collaboration led by the Investigative News Network (INN), of which IowaWatch is a member. INN and Investigative Reporters and Editors analyzed more than half a million records from the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of a national look at the impacts of hazardous materials spills during the last 40 years.

Each day, trucks and railcars hauling hazardous materials share roadways with Iowa drivers and pass through Iowa towns and fields. But unless there is an accident, officials often don’t know what materials pass through the state.

The Iowa Department of Transportation does not track or permit vehicles carrying hazardous materials in Iowa. The Office of Rail Transportation has some data, but it is limited to broad categories, some of which encompass both hazardous and non-hazardous materials, making it hard to determine what is traveling through.

The hazardous materials include explosive, flammable, poisonous, radioactive and corrosive materials as well as oxidizing agents that can cause the combustion of another material.

“If you asked me how many hazardous materials shipments come through the state in a year, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,” Maj. Lance Evans, who oversees Iowa’s hazardous materials inspections team. “There isn’t a mechanism (to track the materials) available right now to states.”

Since the 1970s, more than 6,000 hazardous materials incidents in Iowa have been documented by the U.S. Department of Transportation. IowaWatch obtained the data, dating from Jan. 1, 1970, to Sept. 20, 2013, through the Investigative News Network, to which it belongs.

Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Iowa is in fairly good standing. The state is ranked 31st among the 50 states and is home to far fewer incidents than top-ranked Ohio, which had 40,000.

Concerns about the effects of leaked chemicals came into the news Jan. 10, as hundreds of thousands West Virginians found their water supply contaminated by an industrial chemical that leaked into the Elk River. Residents went nearly a week without water, igniting discussion about increasing regulations on hazardous materials and increased awareness of the vulnerability of the water supply.

Most Iowa spills take place while the materials are transported across highways and when materials are being unloaded, the data show. Iowa’s larger cities are often the site of these spills. Des Moines had the most, with 1,741.

Most releases caused minimal damage, but some resulted in significant damage and required extensive cleanup. During the past 43 years, 25 spills in Iowa resulted in reported environmental damage, 56 resulted in evacuations and 32 closed down major transportation arteries.

One release in 1993 required the evacuation of 500 people and closed down a highway near Des Moines when a cloud of vapor escaped a trailer carrying hydrogen chloride, a poisonous gas. According to the report filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the release, at the intersection of Interstate 35 and Highway 5, caused $10,500 in damage and remediation costs, and sent the driver to the hospital, although he was later released.


The Iowa Department of Natural Resources maintains its own database on hazardous materials spills and works with companies and individuals to explain regulations and cleanup requirements. Generally, the DNR does not continue to track any environmental impacts once a spill has been cleaned up.

Some states have guidelines, known as reportable quantity guidelines, that are based upon the amount of material released and that help people determine when a spill should be reported. But in Iowa the guidelines are more generalized. According to the Iowa Administrative Code, reports are made based upon whether the spill could “cause a hazardous condition.”

Under the code, determination of a hazardous condition is based upon the “quantity, strength and toxicity” of the substance released, how quickly it can spread, how long it can remain in the environment and whether it “creates an immediate or potential danger to the public health or safety or to the environment.”

Adam Broughton, senior environmental specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said major industries have a good understanding of what needs to be reported, but smaller trucking companies might not. “They might be familiar with one state’s regulations but not with ours,” he said.

Trucks park at a truck stop along Interstate-80 on Jan. 20, 2014. The highway is  a common route for trucks hauling hazardous materials.
Credit: File photo by Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

The department has made efforts to send information to trucking industry associations. “But that is about as much as we are able to do. The smaller companies we are just not going to be able to reach because of limitations in communication,” Broughton said.

The lack of reportable quantity standards means some small spills might slip under the radar, Broughton said. But it also means other small quantity releases, such as a gallon or two of petroleum spilled at gas stations, get reported in Iowa that might not be reported in other states.

The department has looked into putting together a standard for reportable quantities but so far has not done one.

“There hasn’t been a strong push from industry and it would require action from the Legislature. There’s not a lot of concern on the public side to push it forward,” Broughton said.

Creating quantity standards might alter the number and type of reports to the DNR, but Broughton said he doubted it would bring any environmental issues to light. “We would see a shift: fewer reports of small petroleum spills and anhydrous ammonia releases. We might see an uptick in other materials, but I doubt it.”


A December derailment and explosion of a crude oil train in North Dakota raised awareness of issues with rail transportation.

Although most hazardous materials travel through Iowa on highways, the incidents with the largest releases of materials frequently involve railroad shipments. Data from the Iowa Office of Rail Transportation, part of the Department of Transportation, show 27,251 carloads of crude oil shipped through the state in 2012. This is just a fraction of the nearly 7 million railcars that chugged through during the year but represents roughly 2.5 million tons of crude oil.

The Dec. 30 explosion near Casselton, N.D., forced hundreds of residents to evacuate. It triggered an alert from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, informing emergency responders and others that “recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

The explosion happened weeks after the Association of American Railroads urged the U.S. Department of Transportation to improve federal regulations for tank cars used to transport flammable liquids, like crude oil and ethanol. The proposal suggests thicker shells, increased protections on the ends of the cars and pressure relief valves could improve the ability of cars to withstand accidents without releasing hazardous materials.

“If a fire heats up a nearby car, it can release the pressure instead of exploding or catching fire. This would prevent fires from moving from car to car to car,” said Holly Arthur, spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads.

The association estimates roughly 92,000 tank cars are currently carrying flammable liquids across the country. Approximately 78,000 of those would need to be retrofitted or phased out, according to a press release.

Estimates from the Railway Supply Institute suggest a program to retrofit existing cars could cost more than $1 billion.

Many of the proposed regulations already were adopted as industry standards by the association in October 2011, but have not been mandated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which can set regulations.

“The industry recognizes that we’re moving more of this material than ever before. These are developments that were clearly identified as technical differences that could improve safety,” Arthur said. The administration is working on the regulations, he said.


Hazardous materials must be properly labeled during transportation, with shipping papers, labels on packaging and vehicle placards. But little information is available about exactly what is shipped through the state.

The Office of Rail Transportation keeps tabs on what is moving through the state, but some of the classifications for shipping lump harmless materials in with more hazardous ones.

Overall, 676,527 railcars potentially carried hazardous materials through Iowa, but the number is likely lower.

“The commodity categories reported to the department indicating the type of commodity shipped do not necessarily align neatly with the identification of hazardous materials.  For example, Category 28, Chemical and Allied Products includes inert chemicals such as glycerin or sodium chloride (salt), but also includes chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia and ethanol which do pose a hazard,” Diane McCauley, policy analyst with the Office of Rail Transportation, said in an email to IowaWatch.

Tammy Nicholson, director of the Office of Railroad Transportation, said the department focuses more on maintaining the safety of infrastructure in the state than regulating the materials that pass through.

“There are things we look at to help improve rail safety. We have full-time employed track inspectors to ensure that the track is being monitored to ensure that the materials, including hazardous materials, are being transported safety,” she said.

Railcars head into the Cargill plant in Cedar Rapids on December 16, 2013
Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Even though the Iowa Department of Transportation does not keep data on the type of materials hauled across Iowa roads and highways it maintains a team of six hazardous materials specialists that Evans oversees. The team was created in 1992 as part of the department’s Office of Motor Vehicle Enforcement.

The team performs spot inspections to ensure vehicles are properly labeled with hazardous materials placards and that the shipping papers are correct. It also performs safety checks to make sure the materials are properly stored, drivers are familiar with safety precautions and the vehicle is in good condition.

“We don’t want to delay commerce any more than we have to. We’re just looking at whether it is safe,” Evans said.

If a small infraction is found — a speeding driver, for example — a report is made. It includes the driver’s license information, the trucking company and vehicle information. Drivers are required to notify their employer when an inspection is made and companies are required to maintain updated files on drivers, Evans said.

If a more serious problem is found, such as brakes in need of repair, the vehicle is put out of service until the problem is fixed.

The state inspected 3,879 vehicles hauling hazardous materials between October 2012 and September 2013. Of those, 14 percent had an out-of-service condition, Evans said.

He said that number is much lower than most commercial vehicle inspections, which find severe issues 22 percent of the time.


When spills happen, they require specialized cleanup and can involve safety precautions such as evacuating workers and residents and closing down roads.

Hazardous material spills in Iowa cost nearly $15 million in cleanup costs and property damages since 1970, U.S. Department of Transportation records show.

More than 90 percent of all spills in Iowa took place during transportation by highway. Of these, many took place during the final stage: unloading.

Spills happen most often in larger cities.

Des Moines’ 1,741 incidents between Jan. 1, 1970, to Sept. 20, 2013, include 30 major incidents. All told, the spills cost roughly $2.5 million in damage and cleanup. Davenport was second during the time studied by IowaWatch and the Investigative News Network, with 814 spills that included seven major incidents costing nearly $55,000. Sioux City, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo rounded out the top five.

Cedar Rapids had 305 spills, racking up nearly $165,000 in total damages and cleanup costs.

Greg Smith, Assistant Fire Chief, Cedar Rapids Fire Department
Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Greg Smith, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department assistant fire chief who oversees the Cedar Rapids Hazardous Materials Team, said it makes sense for the biggest risk to be during unloading. “There’s a lot of equipment, hoses and connections that could malfunction.”

Smith said one common procedure for moving material from a transportation container to storage onsite involves pressurizing the container.

“If there’s any deterioration of the container, that could cause a leak,” he said.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources lists 20 hazardous materials teams that cover 93 counties, or 99.5 percent of the state population. Often, these teams are, like Cedar Rapids’, made up from members of the local fire department.

Between 25 and 30 members of Cedar Rapids’ fire department are trained under Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards to implement response plans to control and mitigate spills, Smith said. The entire department is trained to recognize hazardous materials spills and respond to prevent spreading or exposure to the material.

The central fire station in Cedar Rapids is home to the team’s trailer, which includes the iconic, encapsulating hazmat suits as well as gas monitors and a chemical analysis instrument. Other tools include replacement valves for railroad cars because those are a common source of leaks.

Smith said local companies fill out reports on the amount of hazardous materials stored at their facilities and some voluntarily provide maps with marked storage areas and take the department on walkthroughs so they are familiar with the layout.

This familiarity helps with responses at local facilities, where firefighters usually know what has spilled and where.

Spills near rail lines and during traffic accidents present more challenges. Responders don’t always know what has spilled, and rely on container labels and chemical analyses done on site.

Greg Smith, Assistant Fire Chief for the Cedar Rapids Fire Department, demonstrated an instrument used for onsite chemical analysis during a hazmat emergency response.
Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

A hazardous materials release is different from other emergencies the fire department responds to in that they are slow to develop and require a slower and more methodical response, said Greg Buelow, public information officer for the department.

“With a fire, there’s that sense of urgency, that sense that ‘There’s a fire and lets put it out now.’ Whereas with hazardous materials it can be foolhardy to just run in there,” Buelow said.

In 2013 the department had responded to roughly 138 releases, although Smith said the numbers could be deceiving.

“That might be as simple as a car accident with no fatalities that is leaking fuel. It’s not necessarily the hazmat incident where you see people walking around in the big blue Level A suits with dangers to public health,” Smith said.

The number includes a few chlorine gas releases and a hydrochloric acid leak at the Cargill plant, where 600 liquid gallons of hydrochloric acid leaked from a trailer last year.

The leak, on May 5, led to a call for near-by residents to shelter in place as well as an evacuation of 15 employees, the DOT report shows. The hazmat team was on site for roughly 12 hours to clean the spill, which resulted from a leak in the rubber lining of the container, Smith said.

Hydrochloric acid is highly corrosive, capable of eating through the metal of the trailer once it escaped the liner. Smith said crews were concerned plugging the hole could cause further damage to the container and lead to a larger spill. In the end, crews inflated an air bag “just to the point where the leak was contained without putting undo pressure on the container,” he said.

As an added precaution, crews cut up part of a chemical suit and put it inside the bag. Cargill employees were able then to transfer the chemical to another container. All told, the material loss, damage to the carrier and cleanup costs amounted to a reported $51,809.

The Cargill plant in Cedar Rapids, shown on December 16, 2013.  In May, roughly 600 gallons of hydrochloric acid leaked out of a trailer that was being unloaded.
Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

The DOT report shows that the owner of the container, Quest Liners, investigated the incident and initiated discussions about how long trailers should be kept in service and how frequently the company should inspect trailers. However, it also noted that there had been no previous issues with the trailer before the incident.

Officials at Quest Liners did not respond to phone calls and email requests for information about the results of those discussions.

The fire department billed Cargill roughly $10,000 for the incident and materials used, Buelow said.

“We have to invoice to recover costs. It would be very hard for the department to absorb all of that,” Buelow said. “We’ve had great compliance from the companies. It is better for them to count on a fire department. It is cheaper because the cost is shared by many companies.”

Local companies also pay annual fees that help cover costs.


Broughton, the environmental specialist, said he has seen increased awareness of hazardous materials among the public and industry, as well as increased training and safety efforts.

Improved safety on trains, such as the thicker jackets and shells proposed by the American Association of Railroads, could decrease the likelihood of spills on railways, but few proposals exist to improve safety on roadways.

Nicholson, director of the DOT Office of Rail Transportation, said most of the regulations have to be done at the federal level because the materials are involved in interstate trade. States working to improve safety often are limited to educational outreach.

Shipments of higher-level hazardous materials, like radioactive materials, require carriers to notify his office and the Iowa Department of Public Health, before traveling through the state, Evans said. He said he would like to see a system to allow state officials to track the materials, but didn’t know if such a system would be plausible.

Still, he said roadways are safe for Iowa drivers.

“Very rarely is there an incident in the state. As new technology emerges, the trucking industry is the first to adopt that. It makes things safer. In the 19 years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen improvements by leaps and bounds. The quality of the trucks, trailers and equipment has improved greatly. Hazardous materials shipments that come through the state are very safe and operated by safe drivers,” he said.

This IowaWatch story was published in The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), Mason City Globe Gazette, Sioux City Journal, Burlington Hawk Eye, The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls) and Dyersville Commercial.

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