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Feds fear terrorists could target railroad cargo cars

(The following article by Debbie Gilbert was posted on the Gainesville Times website on October 3.)

GAINESVILLE, Ga. -- Georgia emergency management officials are dubious about a federal proposal that could make it more difficult to protect the public from chemical accidents.

Citing concerns about terrorism, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants to remove hazardous materials placards from railcars.

The diamond-shaped signs use colors and numbers to indicate whether the contents of a railcar are flammable, explosive or poisonous. The symbols help first responders instantly to assess the danger at an accident scene.

"In hazmat technician training, learning to identify the placards is the very first lesson," said Mike Satterfield, director of emergency management for Hall County. "We even buy binoculars and telescopes specifically to help us identify these signs at a distance."

But Homeland Security, which recently took over regulation of hazardous material transport from the U.S. Department of Transportation, argues that terrorists could use those same signs to identify vulnerable railcars and attack them.

The department has not proposed removing the placards from trucks, which transport the vast majority of the 3.1 billion tons of hazardous materials shipped annually in the United States.

Satterfield is puzzled by this apparent inconsistency.

"Anything and everything could be a terrorist target. Our imaginations can't even conceive of what they might do next," he said. "But I don't think terrorists decide on the spur of the moment, 'Hey, let's blow up that railcar.'"

Bert Langley, emergency response program manager for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said the placards have saved lives.

"I don't think the incremental gain in security (from removing them) would justify messing with a system that we all know works," he said.

Homeland Security, which is accepting public comments on the proposal until Oct. 18, has suggested that the placards are unnecessary on railcars because emergency workers can contact the railroad to find out what's in the containers.

"Yeah, theoretically that's the case," Langley said. "In reality, nobody does that. There's a problem with getting the information in a timely manner. During a disaster, communications are often down."

Satterfield said any delay presents a safety risk.

"Time is of the essence," he said. "Even when we know what's in the cars, it takes time to get the hazmat team to the scene and get them into their suits. If you don't find out what's in the car for 30 minutes, it could be all over."

Railroads are required to keep a list of precisely what's in each car. But the system doesn't work if emergency crews can't tell which car is which.

"Sometimes when there's a bad derailment, the cars are so jumbled up that you can't describe to the railroad representative on the phone what number the car was, and you have to wait until they get to the scene," said Satterfield.

Two railroads run through Hall, one crossing from Habersham to Gwinnett, the other from Gainesville into Jackson County. Satterfield said Hall typically experiences one or two derailments per year.

In March 2004, seven freight cars and a locomotive derailed and caught fire near the Jackson County line. In May 2002, about 1,000 residents were evacuated when an automobile crash derailed 13 cars near Oakwood, where officials feared the potential release of cyanide gas. No one was injured in either incident.

Faye Bush, president of the Newtown Florist Club, a civil rights group, said she worries about derailments because train tracks run right beside her Gainesville neighborhood.

"We're so close, if there were something explosive, it could kill us in five minutes," she said. "I really think they shouldn't take (the placards) off the train cars, because firefighters would not be able to come into the community until they could figure out what kind of chemical they were dealing with."

Langley said without the placards, first responders may be forced to assume that every derailment is hazardous until they learn otherwise.

"You'd have unnecessary evacuations, because you'd always have to err on the side of caution," he said.

Even the railroad industry can't figure out why Homeland Security wants to change the rules.

"We aren't the ones who expressed concerns about terrorism," said Tom White, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Railroads. "We understand the concerns of first responders. We would support a study to explore whether there's a better method, but at this time we do not see an alternative (to the placards)."

Monday, October 4, 2004

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