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A toxic cargo turned into a mystery

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Leon D'Souza on March 20.)

SALT LAKE CITY -- When a brew of acids leaked from the corroded sides of a railroad tank car recently, forcing the evacuation of 6,000 people, emergency workers say they faced the situation armed with a baffling invoice of chemical codes that left the tank's contents a mystery.

The spill of corrosive acids at the Union Pacific rail yard in South Salt Lake sent an orange cloud of potentially lethal gases over a several-block area. Se veral roads and highways, including a stretch of Interstate 15, were shut down for almost a day.

Watching a crew member poke a pen through the tanker's solid steel wall, South Salt Lake Fire Chief Steve Foote had no clue exactly what he was dealing with on March 6.

"It wasn't until two days after the incident that we had the state lab bring the results," Foote said. "There was a lot of misinformation."

At issue is the tanker's uniform hazardous waste manifest, a federal government form as bureaucratic as it sounds - full of confusing numbers and dry legalese.

It is supposed to provide a complete paper trail of a hazardous shipment, and it should be a source for police, firefighters, and any others who need accurate and accessible information to safely respond to toxic spills.

But critics say police and firefighters, who respond to a wide range of emergencies, cannot be expected to make sense of the arcane jargon on the form.

"It's a whole plethora of numbers, codes and abbreviations, and that makes it difficult to follow through on what these things mean," Foote said. The manifest for the tank car was so puzzling that he assigned an entire team to make sense of it.

"Their whole responsibility was to research this product, find out what we could or could not do and how to neutralize it," Foote said.

The cost of the response and resulting cleanup will easily top $500,000, Foote said. He is convinced the operation could have cost a lot less - and been a lot safer - if crews had full information to respond quickly.

Allan Moore, environmental program manager with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the manifests often do not spell out contents in plain English.

The Environmental Protection Agency says it is working now on making the manifest less burdensome for generators and transporters. A 2001 proposal, currently under review, would enable electronic manifest tracking, a big cost-saver. But the benefit in clarity is less evident.

"On an emergency like this, you'd want to see more," Moore said. "But how much information needs to accompany these shipments so that you can have it immediately? And do you need to have access to company files? I don't know."

The most visible signal to first responders that the contents of a tanker may be dangerous - a multicolored, diamond-shaped placard on the container's side - also may be wiped out under a Homeland Security proposal that aims to keep tanker contents out of plain view.

Lawmakers have pointed to the Utah spill in arguing against the plan.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D., N.Y.), wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that the Utah spill "raises serious concerns about the ramifications of your plan... . The only information first-responders have to go on... is the placard information."

Even that wouldn't have helped hazmat crews in South Salt Lake, however, because the car carried an acid mix it was not designed for. The placard showed only sulfuric acid, the chemical the tanker was designed to hold.

Monday, March 21, 2005

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