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Chemical signs on rail cars: Safety feature or terror target?

(The following article by Donald E. Coleman was posted on the Fresno Bee website on March 14.)

FRESNO, Calif. -- Fresno Fire Chief Randy Bruegman and others on the front line of emergency response are weighing in strongly against removing diamond-shaped signs from rail cars used to ship dangerous chemicals.

The small placards serve as critical labels to emergency responders, telling them what kind of hazard is posed by a derailment, spill or leak. But federal homeland security officials worry that they could invite acts of terrorism.

Possible removal of placards and other identifying marks from rail shipments of toxic inhalation hazards was one of several security upgrades being considered by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security.

Toxic inhalation hazard materials are gases or liquids known to be so toxic to humans that they pose a health hazard if released into the atmosphere. They include chlorine, nitric acid, sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid.

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"When the idea was first floated, the government felt that it was advertising to terrorists," Bruegman said. "Terrorists know the configuration of tank cars. Removing the placards is not going to deter terrorists from blowing things up." Bruegman said the color- and number-coded placards are vital because they help emergency personnel determine the contents of shipping tanks and decide what actions to take in case of a derailment, spill or explosion.

The type of materials involved dictates the size of the evacuation zone, the level of personal protective equipment and the need for additional or specialized personnel, fire officials say.

"We rely on those placards to give us a bird's-eye view of what's in the tankers," Bruegman said. "It gives us the ability to identify the product as quickly as possible."

Despite references to possible changes in an August 2004 Federal Register notice, a Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman said last week that the placarding system isn't being eliminated.

"We are not interested in removing the placards," said TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O'Sullivan. "It's a safety issue that first responders are aware of what is being carried. TSA is looking at whether there are alternatives. We wanted to lay out some of the issues."

O'Sullivan said the agency is still collecting responses and working on a final policy to safeguard shipments of toxic hazards.

The federal government is looking at the costs and benefits of several security enhancements. Those include improved security plans, enhanced requirements for temporary storage, strengthened tank car integrity, and implementation of tracking and communication systems.

Joe Delcambre, a public affairs specialist for the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said there is no timetable on when the results of the study will be revealed. "The intent is not to leave first responders without a method of identifying hazardous materials," Delcambre said. "We want to leave the door open for any new technology without diminishing identification by first responders."

Materials posing a toxic inhalation hazard play a vital role in life. They are used to purify water supplies, fertilize crops and build manufacturing components. They pose a special risk because their release in an urban area could endanger many people.

About 10 million tons of the materials are shipped by rail each year in the United States, according to the federal government.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs published the results of a survey last week that showed 98% of responding fire chiefs consider hazardous materials placards essential to their emergency responses.

"The removal of hazardous materials placards from rail cars and other containers continues to be a topic of discussion among homeland security officials," the association's statement said. "The IAFC opposes the termination of the current placarding system until a replacement system has been demonstrated to be effective and the fire service has been fully trained in its use."

The Ventura County Fire Protection District, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Orange County Fire Authority and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services also have sent letters opposing placard removal.

Scores of freight trains rumble through Fresno each day, hauling chlorine for pools and water-treatment plants, and chemicals for crop fertilization among their cargo.

Between 35 and 40 freight trains a day use the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks through the heart of Fresno, said Lena Kent, a BNSF spokeswoman.

They pass a hospital, schools, a nursing home and residential areas along the way. In 2001, more than 15,000 loads of hazardous materials moved through town. Kent said that information is not available now for security reasons.

"Railroads are the safest method of transporting hazardous materials," Kent said.

"About 99.9998% are without accidents. Rail accidents involving hazardous materials are down 87% since 1980. Rail is 16 times safer than shipping by truck."

About 15 trains a day use the tracks west of town, said John Bromley, a spokesman for the Union Pacific Railroad Co. He said hazardous materials comprise about 5% of everything his company hauls.

Tim Casagrande, manager of environmental health for the Fresno County Department of Community Health, said because of the agricultural nature of the region, a lot of chemicals are transported, most without incident.

He said the current system provides for awareness of potential risks, "I don't know if another system would ensure an accurate method of identification."

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

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