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Moving Through Unfriendly Territory

(The following article by Esther D'Amico was featured in the January 25, 2006 issue of Chemical Week magazine.)

Improving the safety and security of hazardous material transportation is high on the lists of several groups, including some lawmakers, who are seeking tougher national standards. Rail transportation, in particular, has become a focal point of the debate over whether carriers and the federal government are doing enough to protect heavily populated regions from hazardous chemical spills or terrorist attacks. Both the 2005 London and 2004 Madrid commuter train bombings, as well as the fatal derailment and chlorine leak from a freight train accident in Graniteville, SC last year, have sharply focused attention on the vulnerability of the U.S. rail system, especially on trains that carry hazmats, industry representatives say.

"Every day, disastrous mobile bombs travel at top speeds through densely populated communities across the country. It would take very little for terrorists to turn these transport shipments into an explosive nightmare that could harm hundreds of thousands of people," says Rep. Edward Markey (D., MA), who supports hazmat rerouting.

Meanwhile, the Association of American Railroads (AAR; Washington) says that railroads are "one of our nation's safest industries," transporting about 1.7 million carloads of hazmats annually. Some 99% of such shipments reach their final destination without a release caused by an accident, AAR says. Rail hazmat accident rates have dropped by 34% since 1990, it says.

"Some of the actions taken since September 11, include increased cybersecurity, restricted access to railcar location data, [established] spot employee identification checks, increased tracking and inspection of certain shipments, [created] new encryption technology for selected data communications, increased security at physical assets, and increased employee training to ensure that the industry's more than 200,000 employees serve as the 'eyes and ears' of the security effort," says Edward Hamberger, AAR president.

That, however, has not stopped debate in federal courts and Congress over rail security issues, including hazmat rerouting. The chemical industry can play a role in the debate by "creating a balance" by educating the public on the necessity of transporting certain chemicals to communities, says Asa Hutchinson, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas and former DHS undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security.

The transportation industry is regulated under several federal agencies, and Hutchinson says he would like to see better coordination between two-the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which has jurisdiction over transportation security, and the Department of Transportation (DOT), which focuses on safety. TSA has only "modest" resources to do its job, and is dependent on a small number of inspectors, Hutchinson says. "Historically, the greater number of inspectors has been on the safety side, at DOT," he says. One way the two agencies might coordinate efforts is to cross-train DOT's safety inspectors to also conduct security inspections, he adds.

Other public figures are calling for more stringent changes in transportation policy in Washington, however. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D., MA) introduced a bill last November that seeks to establish a comprehensive emergency training program for rail workers. Lynch had introduced a broader rail transportation safety and security bill earlier in the year that included measures to overhaul training for rail workers, expand safety and communications systems, and improve railroad emergency preparedness; Congress did not take up that bill, however.

Lynch's new bill would require: DHS to quickly establish guidelines for a rail worker emergency training program that addresses areas such as hazmat storage and transport, as well as monitoring of rail yards; DHS to consult with DOT and other groups including railroads, rail labor unions, and public safety officials; railroads to develop a worker training program based on the DHS guidelines, and train all of their workers within one year of implementation of the plan; DHS to be authorized to publish letters of noncompliance in the Federal Register regarding any carrier that fails to comply with the act's requirements; and appropriation of $100 million to DHS to carry out the act.

Lynch says he introduced the bill in response to a survey of 4,000 rail workers published last fall by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Washington). An "overwhelming majority" of those surveyed said that U.S. railroads are highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and other emergencies due to security gaps and lack of training, Lynch says.

"Our rail workers haven't received terrorism prevention and response training, and we are wholly unprepared to prevent and respond to a terrorist attack or disaster on the rails," Lynch says. The U.S. has spent "60 times more dollars" on airline security, than on rail security, since the terrorist attacks in 2001, he says. "Many of our rail systems have emergency response plans, but they're worthless if rail workers don't know they exist," he adds.

Of those surveyed, 85% said there has been no increase in the number of rail police or security guards, "even on lines that carry toxic cargo," the Teamsters say. These respondents also said that trespassers have easy access to rail yards, and that locomotive engines are unsecured on tracks between cities and towns. The Teamsters cite the Graniteville accident. "On a very basic level, rail employees are still in the dark about how to evacuate their trains," says James Hoffa, Teamsters president. "Part of the overall solution must be a commitment to include rail workers in any and all emergency plans, a critical piece to a more secure and safe rail system," Hoffa says.

AAR, however, calls the survey "unscientific," and a "collection of random opinions of some of the Teamsters' members."

Another bill, introduced last year by Senator Joe Biden (D., DE), would require DHS to develop a risk-based strategy for handling the most dangerous chemicals by rail. "The danger of chemicals being transported through our nation's high-threat cities is staggering," Biden says. "The 90-ton rail cars used to carry dangerous chemicals have been compared to rolling weapons of mass destruction." The Biden bill would include rerouting of certain hazmats around "high-threat corridors;" authorizing $100 million for training of emergency service personnel and rail workers who handle hazmats; and developing protocols to notify local officials of the types and quantities of chemicals being shipped.

The last point has been echoed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (Washington). After the Graniteville accident, the group asked DHS to assess notification procedures of freight railroads carrying hazmats so that city officials will "be aware of what is going through their neighborhoods and business districts."

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA; Washington) says it has taken several steps in the last year to improve safety. These include the launch of a program recommending that, when asked, railroads provide local emergency responders with a list of the top-25 hazmats transported through their communities. FRA has also launched a pilot program that provides emergency responders with real-time information about hazmats involved in a train accident. The agency says another new program aims to deploy inspectors and resources to potential safety "hot spots" before accidents occur.

FRA cites a 2002 derailment at Minot, ND, which resulted in one death and 11 injuries from an anhydrous ammonia release. The agency says it is assessing the consequences of accidents involving tank cars, including the forces placed on a tank car in a derailment. "Empowered with this information, we will establish a system to rank the ability of a tank car, based on its design and operational history, to withstand these forces under a variety of environmental conditions," it says.

FRA also launched a broad-based safety plan last year that is primarily aimed at avoiding human error, the most frequent, highest-risk cause of accidents, and the main cause of the Graniteville accident, officials say. "While the railroad industry's overall safety record has improved over the last decade, very serious accidents continue to occur. Growth in both freight and vehicle traffic has created new opportunities and new challenges in the form of more trains on the tracks than ever before," Norman Mineta, DOT secretary, said when introducing the plan.

The National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB; Washington) findings regarding the Graniteville derailment show that the accident was caused by failure of train crew to properly reline a switch back to the mainline track after the crew completed work. The absence of a device that would have reminded crewmembers of the switch position, and therefore would have prompted them to complete this final task before leaving the work site, also contributed to the accident, NTSB says.

Among NTSB's recommendations is a requirement that railroads implement operating measures, such as positioning tank cars toward the rear of trains, and reduce speeds through populated areas. The goal of such measures is to help minimize the impact from accidents and reduce the vulnerability of tank cars carrying chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, and other liquefied gases designated as poisonous by inhalation, NTSB says.
Meanwhile, South San Francisco, CA may be the latest to join the growing list of cities taking hazmat transportation matters into its own hands. South San Francisco mayor Joseph Fernekes has sent a letter to Representative Tom Lantos (D., CA) asking for help in keeping local tracks clear of rail cars containing hazmats, an aide in Lantos's office says. "It is not clear whether legislation would be needed, however," the aide says. Lantos's office is talking with DHS and DOT officials regarding who has authority in the matter, she says.

Lantos supports Fernekes' effort, however. "If we can stop TSA from confiscating nail clippers and start disbursing security funds according to threats, we ought to be able to keep track clear of potential toxins by rail-and to keep them off the tracks where it counts," Lantos says.

The move follows the Washington, DC City Council's controversial legislation to ban certain hazmats from a 2.2-mile radius of the Capitol. CSX filed a lawsuit to overturn the ban last year, and the legislation cannot be enforced while the suit is pending. Baltimore and several other cities have similar efforts under way to limit hazmat transportation through their regions.

Friday, January 27, 2006

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