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June 27, 2023

Hazmat accident on I-81 intensifies focus on overcrowded road

Credit: WUSA9

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Interstate 81 through Hagerstown was blocked for hours Monday after a truck carrying hazardous cargo had a blow out and veered off the road early in the morning. Though only a small amount of the chemicals the tanker truck was carrying escaped, and no injuries were caused, the incident has intensified concerns about safety on the busiest truck route in Maryland.

Maryland State Police responded to a report of an overturned tanker truck around 6:15 a.m. MSP troopers said the truck was carrying ammonium nitrate when it overturned. Lanes of the interstate were closed and businesses within 1,500 feet of the scene were asked to evacuate.

A preliminary investigation found a tire blew on the truck, causing it to swerve off the road, through a guardrail and down an embankment. The driver of the truck, Steven Patrick Norfolk, 32, of Pennsylvania, was transported by ambulance to Meritus Medical Center for treatment of his injuries.

Numerous emergency response units responded to the scene to assist with the crash and cleanup. It is not clear how much ammonium nitrate the truck was carrying. About three gallons spilled on to the road, according to MSP.

Under normal handling conditions, ammonium nitrate is not harmful. However, inhalation of high concentrations of ammonium nitrate dust can cause respiratory tract irritation. Symptoms may include: coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath, or even suffocation.

Truck traffic on Maryland’s section of 81 has has increased exponentially since the road was first conceived, according a report from the Maryland Department of Transportation. Nearly 20,000 trucks use I-81 in Maryland per day, according to the report.

The truck-related crash rate along the highway is also three times higher than the state’s average, and Hagerstown is on the nation’s top 20 list of cities for hazardous materials accidents, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“The volume has increased tremendously over the last few years,” said Washington County Sheriff Brian Adams, who wears a cross to remember the loss of his nephew Kannon Shives, who died with two other teens in an accident in August 2022 on the same highway in a crash involving a truck.

Washington County is now a bigger magnet for trucks due to an explosion in the growth of logistics and warehouse hubs that has attracted the likes of Amazon and FedEx; 2.7 million square feet of warehouse and logistics terminals are under construction in the county, adding to the 1.5 million square feet recently brought online, according to real estate investment analyst Colliers.

“Its definitely a hub for distribution, and the infrastructure hasn’t caught up with the truck volume,” Sheriff Albert said.

Help is on the way. In January, Congress approved nearly $100 million in Infrastructure Act funds to rebuild and widen a portion of Maryland’s 12-mile stretch of 81, after heavy lobbying by Rep. David Trone (D-MD).

Albert says now the focus must be on getting the money to do the other half, because truck numbers are projected to jump another 56% by 2045, according to Maryland’s Department of Transportation.