Dangerous trains pass through Va.
An accident or terrorist attack could leave thousands dead as hazardous cargo travels through Northern Virginia.
(The following story by Brian McNeill appeared on The Connection website on January 20.)
ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Freight trains carrying dangerous cargo including toxic chemicals, ammunition, explosives, nuclear material and corrosive acid routinely travel through densely populated areas of Fairfax County, Arlington and Alexandria, according to public documents and interviews with dozens of local, state and federal officials.
The steady stream of hazardous materials passing through the region via rail has left thousands of Northern Virginia residents exposed to a possible mass-casualty terrorist attack or a potentially deadly accident.
Two weeks ago, a train carrying chlorine derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina. The wreck produced a poisonous gas cloud that killed nine and sickened nearly 250 people.
Six months earlier, two trains collided in a rural area outside San Antonio, Tex. Forty cars derailed and the chlorine gas cloud killed three people — an engineer and two nearby residents.
A similar train wreck could happen here, and it would most likely cause substantially more casualties because freight rail lines, owned by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Corp., pass through highly populated neighborhoods in Fairfax, Springfield, Burke, Clifton, Alexandria and Arlington.
"You hate to be the boy who cried wolf, but we have the potential for a very serious situation here," said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8). "We're one of the potential ground zeroes for a terrorist attack. I've seen estimates that say 100,000 people could be killed in half an hour."
WHILE THE POTENTIAL exists for a deadly event in the region, railroad industry officials assert rail is the safest way to transport dangerous materials.
"The rail industry takes its responsibilities to ship hazardous materials extremely seriously," said Robin Chapman, a Norfolk Southern spokesman. "Safety is our number one priority."
Between 1981 and 2004, there were only 10 fatalities related to hazardous materials transported by rail. At the same time, there were 274 deaths related to hazardous materials shipped via truck, according to the Association of American Railroads.
But because rail cars hold significantly more cargo than any one truck, the potential for a catastrophic accident is greater with rail.
Norfolk Southern and CSX trains were involved in at least 132 accidents related to hazardous materials over the last five years, according to Federal Railroad Administration records.
Railroads carry approximately 20 percent of all chemical tonnage shipped in the U.S. and essentially all of the nation's chlorine shipments.
"We had a 99.7 percent success rate last year for shipping hazardous material," said Misty Skipper, a CSX spokeswoman. "Shipping by rail is safe and secure."
THE EXACT VOLUME of hazardous material passing through the region is impossible to determine. Railroad companies and the federal government keep train schedules and cargo contents confidential for security and proprietary purposes.
When "higher risk materials" pass through the region, the rail lines ensure local emergency responders are aware. Trains carrying such cargo — including nuclear material — pass through Fairfax County, Arlington and Alexandria several times a month, according to three emergency response officials.
"Absolutely anything and everything you can imagine is coming through," said Chief Bill McKay, program manager for Fairfax County's hazardous materials team.
Chemicals such as chlorine, propane, sulfuric acid, ammonia and phosgene travel through the region regularly, the emergency officials said.
"Chlorine is transported through here all the time," said Charles McCrory, Alexandria's emergency management coordinator. "There's a constant transport of hazardous materials. It's kind of a fact of life."
More than 5 million tons of hazardous materials and chemicals passed through Virginia during 2001, the most recent year the information has been made public.
Not all hazardous materials are deadly. The category can include substances such as paint, fertilizer and beer.
Some hazardous materials shipments have been curtailed through the region, though CSX and Norfolk Southern declined to provide details. The Washington, D.C. city council is considered a bill that would prohibit rail shipments of chlorine or other deadly chemicals from passing through the District.
WITH A LITTLE INFORMATON, it’s easy for an observer to figure out the contents of a freight train carrying dangerous cargo. Diamond-shaped placards and large-lettered labels on most cars indicate specifically what is being hauled.
First responders use the labels to know what they are dealing with in the case of a disaster.
"You can park on the side of the road and watch those placards and know exactly what's in these trains," McCrory said.
The Department of Homeland Security has been investigating removing the placards as part of increased security measures in the wake of the March 11, 2004 Madrid, Spain train bombing. By knowing a train car's contents, it is easier to maximize a terrorist attack.
"These rail cars are potential weapons of mass destruction," said Fred Millar, a homeland security and hazardous material consultant in Arlington. "If that accident down in South Carolina happened here or if terrorists blew up a rail car our area, literally tens of thousands of people could die."
AFTER THE SEPT. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the railroad industry implemented a host of new security measures.
"CSX and the railroad industry as a whole are working very closely with the federal government and local emergency responders," Skipper said.
Some of those measures include increased cyber-security, restricted access to rail car location data, spot employee identification checks, increased tracking of certain cargo, new encryption technology for communications and expanded training for the industry's 200,000 employees.
"You're not going to find a safer way to ship hazardous material than by rail," said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.
Both CSX and Norfolk Southern also hold regular joint training exercises with first responders and emergency planners in the region.
Specifically for the nearly 42 miles of track inside the Capital Beltway, federal agencies, private industry and local law enforcement departments are developing a comprehensive protection plan that will incorporate cutting edge technology and security enhancements, though details are classified, said U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) in a Jan. 14 letter.
"Many agencies and organizations have been working together on this priority issue," he said.
THANKS to a lack of public information about the potentially deadly cargo shipped through the region via rail, elected officials and residents near rail lines remain largely unaware of the risk, Millar said.
"People in Northern Virginia are not paying attention to this," he said. "This stuff comes through and no one raises any concerns. Virginia's citizens could be described as blissfully ignorant."
Moran has asked the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a risk assessment for the region to weigh the likelihood of a accidental disaster or terrorist attack on the rail lines.
"I just think it makes more sense to over prepare than to assume that everything will be taken care of, we'll luck out and nothing will happen," Moran said. "If something happens — and we're taken by surprise — we'll only have ourselves to blame."
Millar said he worries it will take a catastrophe like Sept. 11 or major hazardous material accident before security is sufficiently tightened for the rail industry.
"This is a no-brainer," he said. "We've got to stop just accepting the most dangerous kinds of cargoes."
Friday, January 21, 2005
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