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Spills call the safety of rail into question

(The following story by Lisa Rosetta appeared on The Salt Lake Tribune website on March 13.)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- Peering through binoculars from 100 yards away, South Salt Lake Fire Chief Steve Foote searched for signs of what was dribbling out of a railroad tanker car before he sent his firefighters closer.

A simple cardboard placard on the side of the tank offered a clue: sulfuric acid.

While the contents in this case turned out to be a combination of acids, Foote said he depends on the placards to help him plan his attacks.

But the federal government worries they make tankers moving targets for terrorists who, with just one bullet, could cause a catastrophe.

Since August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been considering whether to get rid of the placards, a move that has drawn sharp criticism from railroad workers, chemical companies and firefighters like Foote who rely on them to make important decisions.

"This plan will not make terrorist attacks on freight trains less likely, but it probably will make loss of life and injuries more likely when a trail derailment occurs," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote in a March 7 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

The placards use colors, symbols, numbers and text to communicate what is inside a tank car, helping first responders know whether to wear protective clothing or equipment.

"We don't want anybody to have access to that information - 'Oh, look, there's a big tank' - but at the same time, I don't want to hamstring our firefighters and not allow them the information they need when they get there," Foote said.

In Utah, the public's right to know what is being shipped is an issue not only in the wake of the March 6 spill, but in the debate over plans to ship high-level nuclear waste to the Skull Valley Goshute reservation 50 miles west of Salt Lake City.

Chip Ward, co-founder of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said the potential transport of nuclear waste through the state underscores the importance of accessible information.

The risks, he said, "approach a whole different scale when you talk about transporting nuclear waste."

At a Wednesday rally in Jordan Park, where about 100 people gathered to protest the shipment of hazardous wastes through neighborhoods, he said, "Accidents are inevitable, and they are compounded by a system that doesn't offer protection, or even good information."

About 10 million tons of "toxic inhalation hazard [TIH] materials" - gases or liquids that are known to pose a danger to humans in the event of a release - are shipped by rail every year in the United States, according to the Aug. 16 Federal Register.

While it is a fraction of the 3.1 billion tons of hazardous materials shipped annually by all modes of transportation, "a terrorist attack against the rail transportation of TIH materials in an urbanized area could endanger significant numbers of people" the Register states.

In October 2002, after capturing al-Qaida photos of U.S. railroad engines, cars and crossings and interviewing al-Qaida detainees, the FBI warned law-enforcement agencies that the terrorist group may be targeting the country's rail system.

But Foote said the likelihood of an accident is greater than a terrorist attack. Removing the placards is exchanging one risk for another, he said.

"We're starting to have more and more of these [accidents], but as far as I know, none of them has actually been sabotaged," he said.

Since 1973, 47 people have died in the United States as the result of tank cars either failing or derailing, Federal Railroad Administration statistics show. The most recent accident, on Jan. 6, killed nine people in Graniteville, S.C., when a derailed tank car spewed chlorine.

Between 1990 and 2004, there were 504 documented releases from 881 tank cars hauling hazardous materials, prompting the evacuation of a total of 144,497 people.

Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, did not believe any of the accidents were the result of sabotage.

Yet the Department of Homeland Security has indicated removing the placards may be just the first step toward securing the nation's rail system. Enhanced requirements for temporary storage of hazardous materials and strengthening tank cars are also on its radar screen.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Federal Railroad Administration has initiated a number of projects assessing rail security, including investigating whether tank cars built before 1989 are at higher risk for failure and should be on the tracks at all.

A National Transportation Safety Board report released in March 2004 about a Canadian Pacific Railway accident in Minot, N.D., found that five tank cars built before 1989 "catastrophically ruptured," releasing 146,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia. One person was killed and more than 300 were injured.

Unlike tanks built after 1989, the Canadian Pacific tanks were built with non-normalized steel - which didn't undergo a heat-treating process that lowers the temperature at which steel becomes brittle - making them more susceptible to fractures.

In its report, the NTSB made the more alarming finding that as many as half of the 60,000 tank cars in service in the United States do not meet current industry standards, making them more susceptible to rupture.

The responsibility for inspecting the tank cars falls on the shoulders of the companies who own and lease them, like Kennecott Utah Copper Corp., which owned the tanker that ruptured in South Salt Lake. But inspection requirements are set by the Federal Railroad Administration, which the NTSB has criticized for not being more stringent.

At the Jordan Park rally, Utah state Sen. Fred Fife, D-Salt Lake City, a vocal opponent of shipping hazardous materials through neighborhoods, said, "Clearly the regulations and regulatory oversight were not sufficient to prevent this accident. When it comes to protecting health and safety, our residents should not take a back seat to the industry's bottom line."

Flatau said Friday that the railroad administration, a branch of the Department of Transportation, has only 450 inspectors, each of whom has a different area of expertise, such as railroad tracks or tank cars.

Because the federal agency can't possibly keep tabs on every rail car, the railroad industry is largely self-regulating.

"It obviously is a challenge," he said. "Fortunately, from our point of view, the safety record in general has been good, especially if you consider the amount of materials moving over our nation's rail network and the amount of traffic."

Kennecott spokesman Louie Cononelos said the company performs an inspection on its 800 tank cars every time they are used for transport. Every five years, the tank cars are taken out of service and more thoroughly examined.

The tank car that leaked 7,000 gallons of a chemical cocktail in South Salt Lake received its last inspection in February 2004.

Cononelos said he didn't know what year the tank car was built.

Monday, March 14, 2005

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