Rail safety legislation could have a major impact on N. Texas
(The following story by Scott Streater appeared on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram website on July 31.)
FORT WORTH, Texas — Federal legislation requiring trains carrying hazardous chemicals to avoid densely populated areas could significantly affect Dallas-Fort Worth, which receives more rail shipments of toxic chlorine gas than anywhere in the country.
Congress last week approved a broad Homeland Security bill that requires the U.S. Transportation Department to work with railroads and local leaders nationwide to find the safest routes for hazardous rail cargo, and to reroute it through less-populated areas if possible.
President Bush has pledged to sign the bill as early as this week.
The big concern in Dallas-Fort Worth comes from water and wastewater treatment plants, which store large volumes of chlorine for disinfection and could be an inviting target for terrorists. Chlorine gas released into the air can travel for miles close to the ground at concentrations that can cause permanent lung damage and death.
Millions of people from Fort Worth to Carrollton could be killed or seriously injured by chlorine leaking from a rail car or storage tank, according to federal records. A Star-Telegram review of federal Risk Management Plans in March showed that chlorine -- whether stored on site or shipped by rail car or tanker truck -- is by far the biggest toxic threat in the region, placing more than 1 million people in Tarrant County at risk each day.
Safety advocates praised the legislation, saying the federal government has long needed to address the issue.
A chlorine leak at the Tarrant County Water Supply Project plant in Euless could release 34,400 pounds of chlorine gas, forming a ground-level cloud traveling up to 12 miles and endangering 1.1 million people, according to federal records. At Dallas' Bachman water treatment plant, leaking chlorine could travel 14 miles and place 2 million people at risk.
Both plants have switched to a purification system that injects ozone gas into the water to kill bacteria, officials said. This significantly reduces, but does not eliminate, the chlorine transported to and stored on each site.
Why it's important
A chlorine leak, whether accidental or intentional, is a serious health threat.
A Homeland Security Council report last year concluded that blowing up a chlorine gas tank in a highly populated area could kill 17,500 people, severely injure 10,000 and hospitalize as many as 1 million.
About 100 plants nationwide store enough chlorine or other chemicals to harm at least 100,000 people, according to federal records. Texas has 23, the most in the nation.
What rail carriers say
The Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group, did not oppose the rail car stipulation in the bill. But the group said finding alternative routes is not always possible -- or necessary.
The group argues that many of the routes for hazardous material transport are safe.
Instead, the railroad industry has pushed the federal government to require water and wastewater utilities to find alternatives to disinfecting with chlorine, and some of the biggest-risk utilities have started to do that.
"Obviously the long-term solution lies in the use of safer chemicals," said Tom White, a railroad group spokesman.
What safety advocates say
The federal government has needed for years to take seriously the threat posed by hazardous chemicals on trains, said Jim Dougherty, a national Sierra Club board member who has studied the issue.
"We think this is a complete win for the country," he said. "We need to have someone manage this risk."
U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee who pushed for the rerouting provision, said there's no excuse for not addressing the issue.
"These shipments of toxic chemicals are literally 'Hell on Wheels' rolling through our communities," said Markey, D-Mass, in a news release. "This bill ensures that the safest and most secure route must be taken."
At room temperature, chlorine is a yellow-greenish gas that's heavier than air. It produces a strong, irritating odor, similar to bleach. It is mainly used as bleach in the manufacture of paper and cloth, as well as a disinfectant for drinking water and wastewater.
It was used as a weapon during World War I.
Exposure can cause burning of the eyes and skin, wheezing, blue coloring of the skin and fluid buildup in the lungs. At high levels, it can produce severe eye and skin burns, lung collapse and death.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007