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Louisville targets rail security

(The following story by James Bruggers appeared on The Courier-Journal website on June 14.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Pressed by Metro Council members and activists concerned about potential terrorist attacks, city officials have agreed to look for ways to improve security at rail yards in Louisville.

But it's not clear how much they can do, because the federal government regulates railroads and rail yards, and one railroad company has already denied a local request to move its tank cars of hazardous materials away from a West End elementary school.

"We need to make sure our agencies are looking at this issue and developing what we can do locally, more than what we are doing," said Art Williams, director of the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District. "We want to know and exercise our authority that we do have."

Metro government officials from three agencies — the air district, health department and the Louisville Metro Emergency Management Agency — plan to discuss the issue among themselves Tuesday, said Richard Wellinghurst, hazardous materials coordinator for the Louisville Metro Health Department.

But Wellinghurst said the issue goes beyond one city. "We need to figure out how to do it as a nation," he said of ensuring rail line safety.

Concerns about rail security have intensified since the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and in the weeks since the March11 train bombing in Spain, which killed 191 people and injured 2,000 others.

Locally, the greatest concern has centered on Norfolk Southern's K-Yard between the Rubbertown complex of chemical companies in western Louisville and Kennedy Montessori Elementary School. The railroad frequently parks dozens of cars, some marked as carrying toxic chemicals, in the rail yard.

In an unlikely catastrophic break, some of the rail cars could spread toxic vapors for many miles in any direction, depending on the chemical and wind, according to public documents prepared by the chemical plants that own, lease or use the tank cars.

Although an earthen berm separates the yard from school property, rail cars sometimes are parked along a line leading into the yard, which at one point passes within 100 feet of the school's playground.

Chuck Fleischer, director of safety and environmental services for Jefferson County Public Schools, said that while Kennedy has an emergency response plan in the event of nearby chemical accident, school officials have asked that the cars be parked behind the berm, which could block toxic vapors from a leaking rail car.

"They were specifically requested to move those cars," said Fleischer, referring to a letter school officials sent to the company last year.

But Norfolk Southern has said it cannot promise to keep all its tank cars of hazardous materials inside its yard.

"We told the school that we would do the best we could, when we could, " to keep tank cars from being parked on the line that runs by the school, said Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman, who acknowledged that the berm might help to keep vapors away from the school in an emergency.

But, Chapman said, "When the yard gets full, we have to park them outside the yard."

CHAPMAN SAID the K-Yard is "among the most secure on our system." The company operates 21,500 miles of rail lines in 22 states, the District of Columbia and Ontario, Canada, according to its Web site.

Louisville is home to a major network of rail yards and rail lines. It's a legacy of Louisville's historic role as a rail transportation hub, dating to before the Civil War.

Taken together, Wellinghurst said, the local rail network presents a major challenge in Louisville, given the frequent use of rail cars to ship hazardous materials in and out of the city.

Although city officials consult with rail companies on security, the companies have their own police and security forces, Wellinghurst said, adding that they have in recent months been more responsive to the city's request that they not park rail cars containing hazardous materials along their tracks.

Alan I. Roberts, president of the Dangerous Goods Advisory Council, whose members include the industry groups Association of Railroads and the American Chemistry Council, said companies have increased their security since the terrorist attacks. Shippers of hazardous materials are also required to follow new security regulations, he said.

The public needs to have a proper perspective, he said.

"This is an awfully big country, and we have 800,000 new shipments of hazardous materials every day," Roberts said. "For total security, it would cost billions and billions of dollars, and then the terrorists win" because costs of consumer products would skyrocket, he said.

The Courier-Journal first wrote about concerns behind the Kennedy elementary school in late 2002, after a reporter had driven on Gibson Lane into the center of the rail yard three times, and found no "keep out" signs and no security guards.

After the newspaper asked Norfolk Southern about security at the yard, a no-trespassing sign was posted at its entrance and the railroad began a new practice of keeping at least half of Gibson Lane blocked by a gate.

IN RECENT MONTHS, leaders of Rubbertown Emergency Action, an environmental group pushing for pollution cuts from the 11 Rubbertown chemical plants, have said they believe security inside the yard remains lax, and have been calling for improvements.

Tim Duncan, a board member of the environmental group whose son attended Kennedy school in the 1990s, said he strolled onto the property on a February afternoon, and got close enough to the rail cars to read labels identifying their contents. He said he never saw "no trespassing" signs or security guards. "This was broad daylight. I wasn't sneaking around," Duncan said, adding that he was alarmed to hear the company say that its K-Yard security is among its tightest. "That's a sad indication of what's going on in the other yards," Duncan said.

U.S. Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said she was not familiar with the rail security situation in Louisville. But she said the federal government has worked closely with rail companies, federal law-enforcement officials and local agencies nationally to improve rail security, and will continue to make it even better.

If Louisville residents have specific rail security concerns, they are right to notify authorities, she said.

"We want 24-hour security," said Eboni Cochran, who lives within a half mile of K-Yard, and is a board member of the Rubbertown environmental group.

Several Metro Council members have also begun to speak out.

"It's not just in the Rubbertown area," said Ron Weston, D-13th District, saying the rail security concerns include other rail yards in Louisville.

"Can we fence them off? Working it out is going to be a major task."

Borden Chemical Co. plant manager Cliff Hardaway recently told the Rubbertown Community Advisory Council that fences with razor wire would be erected within three months to enclose an area where chemical tank cars used at his plant are parked nearby.

The fences will keep people out and enhance security, he said.

Something needs to be done, said Robin Engel, R-22nd: "It just concerns me that we have unsecured rail cars with the potential for danger, especially next to a school."

Monday, June 14, 2004

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