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What’s on that train?

(The following article by Trevor Hughes was posted on the Daily Times-Call website on February 26.)

LONGMONT, Colo. -- Every year, 1.7 million train cars carrying hazardous waste rumble through the country, mostly carrying chlorine to purify water, ammonia to make fertilizer and low-level radioactive waste from hospitals and power plants.

That hazardous material arrives at its destination safely 99.998 percent of the time, according to the federal government. But despite what experts call an enviable safety record, railroad officials acknowledge the public has many fears about the potentially dangerous chemicals and goods rolling through communities.

On Friday, state and local experts met in Denver with representatives of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to learn more specifics about how the company manages dangerous shipments. BNSF officials also offered a series of presentations on topics ranging from rail crime and terrorism to haz-mat cleanups and their efforts to make highway crossings safer.

“From a risk-analysis standpoint, (the risk is) very, very minor,” state transportation director Tom Norton said. “But if something happens, it’s a big one — big in the sense of the way the public looks at it. Perception is reality, is the way we have to deal with it.”

The factual reality, according to BNSF officials, is that there has been one train-related haz-mat spill in Colorado in the past five years, and that was 20 gallons of ethanol in 2004 near Rocky Ford. Friday’s presentation was an opportunity for BNSF to offer such statistics to reassure local transportation planners that railroads are much safer than freight trucks. Under federal law, railroads are required to move hazardous materials, but they would rather not do it if given a chance, BNSF officials said.

Moving toxic chemicals and materials requires extensive safety protocols and monitoring.

“We’re trying to deal with it in the most community-friendly way we can,” said Charles Shewmake, a BNSF assistant vice president.

One of the ways that railroads try to be community-friendly is by providing a list of the hazardous materials most commonly transported, along with times and volumes. That list is closely held, because train officials believe terrorists might try to use that information in an attack. Local fire departments and emergency managers, however, are permitted to receive a copy. Officials with the Longmont Fire Department and the city and county of Boulder Office of Emergency Management were unaware they could get such a list and said they do not have a copy.

Railroads are regulated by the federal government, which means local governments such as Longmont and Boulder County have little say over what happens. It also means railroads sometimes miss opportunities to partner with local first responders. BNSF has been trying to address that situation by conducting more joint training and holding briefings.

But because the railroads are private businesses, it also means they don’t have to be all that open. For instance, BNSF officials cautioned their local counterparts that the haz-mat transport lists may not be given out to anyone, even if they live alongside the tracks.
BNSF its own police force, a power granted to railroads by Congress and the states.

Those BNSF officers inspect railcars to ensure they contain what the shippers say they do, cite drivers who ignore crossing signals, aggressively target trespassers and detain immigrants who try to sneak across the Mexican border as stowaways. A top BNSF law enforcement official Friday showed off X-rays of train cars revealing where would-be border crossers were hiding.

“We know what’s in all the cars,” said Ben Reed, a BNSF police officer and senior manager of protection solutions.

But not everyone does. While an average of six trains travel through Longmont daily, city officials have no real idea what’s inside. They are generally prepared to deal with chemical spills. Local businesses undergo what’s called a pre-plan, in which firefighters walk through buildings to check the location of chemicals and other potential hazards. They cannot do that with the railroads.

“If it was standing still, I could regulate it,” said Mike Selan, Longmont Fire’s haz-mat coordinator.

One of the ways BNSF and state officials are proposing to make rail transport of freight and haz-mat safer is to build new train tracks east of Denver, running north and south. Today, most BNSF freight trains headed to or from Wyoming run through Longmont and Boulder. Union Pacific, the area’s other large railroad, uses tracks that run through Greeley.

While the tracks predate most communities, the undeniable fact is that tens of thousands of Coloradans live near well-used railroad tracks.

Rep. Jack Pommer, a Boulder Democrat, said he supports moving the tracks east. He said that would reduce congestion on roads by keeping freight trains out of populated areas, making them even more cost-effective than trucking.

In 2004, area voters approved plans to bring passenger rail from Denver to Boulder and Longmont. Those trains would use BNSF’s tracks, and the freight trains would likely retain priority. Moving the freight traffic east would free up those tracks for passenger trains. Pommer said he supports making such a proposal part of a revamped Referendum D, which voters rejected last fall.

Pommer said last year’s version of the plan failed to capture people’s imagination, and that incorporating a proposal to move the freight tracks east could help garner support. Such a move could reduce train-vehicle crashes by avoiding busy local roads, such as Ken Pratt Boulevard or Colo. Highway 52 by the IBM plant in Gunbarrel.

“One school of thought is that you don’t come back with Referendum D No. 2,” said Pommer, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “Bringing back what we have tried before isn’t going to cut it.”

Monday, February 27, 2006

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