Exposure of Soil and Groundwater to Spills of Hazardous Materials Transported by Rail: A Geographic Information System Analysis

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

planning - safety/accidents, planning - signage/information, planning - environmental impact, land use - impacts, policy - environment, technology - geographic information systems, mode - rail


Vulnerability assessment, United States Geological Survey, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Statistical distributions, Spills (Pollution), Soil types, Soil pollution, Silts, Sand, Risk assessment, Railroad accidents, Probability distribution functions, Probability, Physical properties, Physical characteristics, Hazardous materials spills, Hazardous materials, Groundwater, GROUND WATER, GIS, Geographic information systems, Geocoding, Environmental impacts, Environmental effects, Distributions (Statistics), Distribution theory, Databases, Clay, Chemical properties


The environmental impact of a hazardous material spill is a complex function of the material’s physical and chemical characteristics and the local environmental conditions in which it is spilled. This study develops a geographical probability distribution for two important environmental parameters affecting this impact: soil type and groundwater depth. The paper assesses the probability of exposure of various soil types and groundwater depth regions to hazardous material spills from railroad tank car accidents. The State Soil Geographic database (STATSGO), a geographic information system (GIS) database from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was used to analyze soils, and real-time groundwater data from the U.S. Geological Survey were used to analyze groundwater. The “rail2m” GIS database available from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics was used to conduct overlay analyses with the soil GIS data to obtain the probability of occurrence of various soil types under rail lines. The same method could not be used for groundwater exposure because no suitable GIS database for this parameter was available. Therefore, a nationwide probability distribution of the groundwater depth ranges was developed. The proportion of the three soil types under rail lines was 44.0% for sand, 51.2% for silt, and 4.0% for clay, the remainder being over surface water. The probability of occurrence of five groundwater depth regions was 16.4% for 5 to 15 ft, 12.6% for 15 to 25 ft, 23.3% for 25 to 75 ft, 12.0% for 75 to 125 ft, and 35.9% for greater than 125 ft. A matrix of the probability distribution of environmental scenarios was developed; it is suitable for use in conducting environmental risk assessments of railroad transportation of hazardous materials.