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Rail cars raise cargo fears

(The following article by William F. West was posted on the Montgomery Advertiser website on March 24.)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Luverne Hannon says she is "scared to death" of a CSX train of hazardous materials derailing and overturning.

Hannon said if she could immediately move from her trackside house in Montgomery's Chisholm neighborhood, she would.

"Just as far as possible," she said Wednesday.

Concerns about hazardous material railroad car accidents are fueling debate over whether railroad companies should give notice of what they're hauling before their trains come through city and town limits. Not surprisingly, rail companies and average citizens stand on opposite sides of the debate.

In fact, the agency charged with handling these types of emergencies has no idea what is being hauled through Montgomery on a daily basis.

Hannon's residence is along Michigan Avenue, just northeast of a CSX railroad yard. Hannon's neighbor, Erica Bethune, said she's concerned about the possibility of a catastrophe.

"You can only hope and pray that it doesn't happen," she said.

Neighbor Natasha Thomas, mother of a 20-month-old girl, said while she doesn't know what is in those cars pulled by a locomotive, "I hope it wouldn't blow up ... Anything could happen."

Their worries are hardly unique.

In January, a train wreck in South Carolina leaked chlorine gas, killing nine, injuring 250 and forcing the evacuation of about 4,500 nearby residents. The wreck has inspired nationwide fears of a similar incident.

On Wednesday, a federal judge heard arguments in a challenge filed by CSX after the Washington, D.C., City Council banned hazardous materials rail cars from passing near the nation's capital.

Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman, said Wednesday that the federal government, not the District of Columbia, regulates commerce.

Tim and Natasha Thomas stand in the back yard of their Michigan Avenue home with their 20-month-old daughter, Brunesia.

"We think that if communities are allowed to decide what can and can't come through the communities on our lines, then it will create enormous economic hardship for the company and the country at large," Sease said.

Tommie Miller, Montgomery County's appraiser, created the local Emergency 911 system. He said Montgomery officials have a right to be told when hazardous materials are coming.

"How can they be prepared for it if they don't know what it is?" he said Wednesday.

"We need to know, and if CSX is not forthcoming with the information, then there needs to be a directive letter going to them" from the city or the county, or both, he said.

Montgomery City-County Emergency Management Director Anita Patterson said she has repeatedly asked CSX "to tell me what's coming through here" daily. She said she was told that "because there's so much that's coming through" she cannot receive a full disclosure.

"I would like to know on a daily basis so that if anything occurred, we could pull that up on the computer and know exactly what that chemical is and how to deal with it," she said.

Sease expressed surprise when the Montgomery Advertiser told him of Patterson's inability to receive assistance from CSX. He said CSX is willing to work with her by providing studies and details about the chemicals that are transported.

"But I don't think we're in a position to pre-notify officials of hazardous materials shipments coming through the community," he said.

Sease said such data would be so cumbersome to absorb he believes it wouldn't benefit those who would be the first responders to an accident. And he said he's concerned it could inadvertently make a train a target for terrorists.

"We're not sure of the security of that information getting to the right people," he said.

Sease said the bottom line is hazardous materials are used to help produce glass, pharmaceuticals and plastics, and that the rail lines must remain open.

"Where's it going to go? Are we going to put it in trucks and put it down I-65 in the middle of Montgomery? I don't think so," he said.

Complaints aren't limited to railcars with hazardous materials.

Some Chisholm area leaders and residents are also upset by what they believe is excessive horn blowing by train drivers approaching the Michigan Avenue crossing. They also worry that brush and trees along rights-of-way, if not cut back, could become drug havens.

Sease said federal law requires warning sounds when approaching crossings. He said communities could ask the government for a "quiet zone" exemption, but getting one requires meeting qualifications. As for overgrowth alongside tracks, he said, "I certainly think that's something we can look into."

Thursday, March 24, 2005

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