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Pittsburgh Council reviews hazmat response

(The following article by Carl Prine was posted on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review website on February 25.)

PITTSBURGH -- Faced with news that locomotives are tugging more toxic shipments through Pittsburgh than ever to deal with anti-terrorism restrictions on hazardous materials in Washington, D.C., City Council on Thursday reviewed Pittsburgh's ability to withstand a catastrophic release of deadly chemicals.

Pittsburgh was thrust into the national spotlight when some council members said they would investigate a ban on shipments of deadly industrial gases such as chlorine, ammonia or hydrogen fluoride through heavily populated neighborhoods.

On Feb. 15, Washington Mayor Anthony Williams signed into law a ban on all hazardous materials shipments through the capital, a move rail companies are fighting before a federal hearing board.

Pittsburgh council's interest in the issue follows a recent derailment of rail cars containing steel pickling gas in East Deer and a Graniteville, S.C., collision where chlorine gas killed nine people, injured 200 and forced the evacuation of 5,400 rural residents.

One of the nation's largest inland ports, Pittsburgh is the northeastern hub for barge, rail and highway shipments of chemicals and bulk fuels.

Allegheny County Emergency Management director Bob Full said the city should expect more hazardous materials on its tracks in the months ahead. He said the county's five elite hazmat response teams will continue to monitor the traffic.

"We have more chemicals on the nation's transportation infrastructure than ever before," said Full, a nationally-known expert on responding to chemical disasters. "We know right now that a number of chemical facilities have elected to reduce the amount of storage they have on hand. In turn, they have more shipments coming in on a regular basis."

Phillip McFarren, spokesman for the Keystone State Railroad Association trade group, warned that Pittsburgh is the "rail gateway for the whole Northeast," and that diverting hazardous material shipments around the city would snarl tracks nationwide, hurt the U.S. economy and help trigger a "patchwork" of local ordinances that could jeopardize federal oversight of train safety and security.

"It is critically important that these groups don't act unilaterally by diverting shipments," said McFarren. "You will force shippers to send this material unsecured, on longer routes, going through more communities than they do now. And if we put this on trucks, you are increasing the risk of accidents. Rail is the safest way to ship hazardous material."

McFarren said it also is unlikely that the rail giants could send cargo manifests to cities before shipping deadly chemicals through town, a point South Side councilman Gene Ricciardi applauded because he worried the information would "fall into the wrong hands" and trigger terrorist attacks.

In Washington, however, architects of the hazardous materials ban there said council should act if it wants the largest rail corporations to take them seriously.

"The rail companies won't care about what Pittsburgh's leaders want unless they're serious about enacting an ordinance," said Fred Millar, who helped to draft the District of Columbia ordinance.

Friday, February 25, 2005

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