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Toxic cargoes pose terrorist risk

(The following article by Jeff Montgomery was posted on the News Journal website on September 9.)

NEWARK, Del. -- For more than half a century Flora Kibler has listened to freight trains rumble past her Newark home along what is now the CSX Corp. mainline.

"It's an everyday occurrence. I've never thought much about it, to tell you the truth," said Kibler, who lives on East Cleveland Avenue. "I can see the trains from my house, but I never pay much attention to what they're carrying."

But experts warn that what is being carried -- chemical shipments on rail lines through Newark, Wilmington, Dover and other communities -- are ready-made weapons. Big tanks of chlorine, ammonia and other potentially deadly compounds commonly seen along Delaware tracks offer a quick way to kill, injure or alarm thousands of people at a single stroke.

"There is no easier way for al-Qaida to fulfill its stated goal of killing a lot more Americans than to let loose a chlorine car or poison gas car in a major city," said Fred Millar, a consultant who helped Washington, D.C., develop a controversial ban on rail shipments through the nation's capital. That ban is now under court appeal.

While rail tank cars are built to high safety standards, environmental groups have insisted that they remain vulnerable to direct attacks involving collisions, bombs, armor-piercing bullets or sabotage.

Even the chance of an accidental toxic spill is small. The state's most recent estimates found there's a 1-in-20,000 chance of a significant spill. But Delaware residents were reminded of the possibility late last month, when a rail car full of a toxic chemical used to make plastics started leaking at Dow Reichhold Specialty Latex near Cheswold, north of Dover.

That leak, and the potential for others, has magnified worries over toxic shipments and the protocol for responding to leaks. Residents and security experts say that people near rail lines are left in the dark about potential hazards and say the system for notifying them in case of an accident is flawed. Some argue the risk is so great that it could warrant wholesale rerouting to avoid densely populated urban areas.

"It's become more of a concern since the incident at Reichhold," said Ann Rider, who lives in Dover, near the edge of a 10-mile-wide circle that officials targeted for a shelter warning hours after the leak was first reported Aug. 25 at 6:40 p.m.

"We weren't notified until well after 10 p.m.," Rider said. "People could smell it and assumed that it was mosquito spraying going on. That was in the early evening when children were still outside."

James D. Werner, director of air and waste management for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said state emergency managers needed to provide more information, faster.

"One of the lessons we've learned here is that we're going to need to look at how we can improve our communications with the community," Werner said. "The feedback we heard was: 'Why wasn't I informed?' or 'Why was I informed later than my neighbor?' "

Thousands at risk

After the Cheswold incident, Millar said, Wilmington should consider a push to restrict or find alternate routes for hazardous cargoes now moving through densely populated areas. Officials from the District of Columbia are encouraging hazardous cargo rerouting measures in Boston, Philadelphia and other cities.

"If you don't reroute these cargoes, we're prepositioning them for the convenience of terrorists, right where the terrorists would like to have them," Millar said.

Chlorine and ammonia account for 80 percent of the most-dangerous toxic-vapor chemicals hauled by railroads, according to industry officials. Both can sear lungs and blind people at concentrations that could be found miles from a rail car spill, according to researchers.

According to one widely quoted study completed for the Chlorine Institute, a chlorine tank car release in Delaware could send a killer plume of gas nearly 15 miles long and 4 miles wide if released in a quick surge. Depending on wind and weather conditions, a cloud of that size could affect more than 180,000 people if released in Wilmington or Newark, according to a check of census records by The News Journal.

A rail tanker of anhydrous ammonia, commonly used as a refrigerant by Delaware poultry and food processing industries, could release a cloud capable of sickening people 3.5 miles away, according to industry risk-management reports filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.

More than 13,000 people live within a 3.5-mile radius of tracks passing through Middletown, according to the 2000 census. The same is true of Milford. Current numbers are likely higher in both fast-growing communities.

In Newark, the number of permanent Delaware and Maryland residents inside a 3.5-mile circle would top 65,000.

But residents, including Kibler, say they don't view the tracks as a threat.

"Most of the trains I see are box cars. I don't see very many tank cars," she said. "I suppose that's a good thing. Our property backs right up to the right-of-way."

West of Newark, Rebecca Ryan said she seldom considers risk from the trains that regularly pass near her home.

"You get used to it," Ryan said. "I've never paid any attention. I grew up about 10 feet off a railroad track in rural Chester County. Granted, the majority of time there it was lumber or potato chips going through. If it is dangerous, I could see why people would be concerned."

Jon Townley, chief of Newark's Aetna Hose, Hook & Ladder Fire Company, said he was unaware of any recent talks aimed at reducing risks from high-hazard cargoes.

"The tracks run right through the University of Delaware and right through Newark," Townley sid. "It would cause a lot of problems."

Opposition to rerouting

Rail and industry groups brand the "worst-case" spill-hazard scenarios as highly conservative and unlikely. They also have opposed efforts to reroute their shipments.

The American Association of Railroads estimates that the 100,000 carloads of "toxic-if-inhaled" chemicals its members carry each year amount to about two-tenths of 1 percent of all freight but more than half of railroad liability insurance expense.

"We have opposed rerouting. The fact is, if you compel re-routing around cities or if cities are given the right to compel re-routing, you could make it impossible to ship some of these things," said association spokesman Tom White.

John Rago, communications director for Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker, said he was unaware of any discussions with Washington officials about rerouting cargo.

But City Councilman Michael A. Brown Sr., whose district includes residential areas near industrial tracks, said the idea a good one.

"Anything we can do to reduce the risk to our neighborhoods is a good thing," Brown said. "They should not be bringing some of these chemicals into our city at all."

Slight chance

One study prepared for Delaware's State Emergency Response Commission found that about 11 percent of all rail cargoes involve hazardous materials, with about 34 percent of hazardous rail shipments passing through the state, rather than starting or stopping locally.

The same report estimated a 1-in-20,000 risk of a major rail accident, judging by past accident statistics.

But conditions have changed drastically since those numbers were compiled in 2002.

Chemical hazards have diminished along Delaware rail lines in recent years. Business decisions shuttered factories in Claymont and Delaware City that ranked as high-volume producers of toxic chlorine, benzene and sulfur compounds.

But risks from accidental or intentional releases remain in all three counties and nationwide, and are believed to have increased since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to state and national officials.

"In today's climate, the potential for a catastrophic event is more real," Carolyn W. Merritt, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said during Senate testimony last year. "Today an intentional criminal act is a real possibility."

In June, a National Academy of Sciences council recommended increased efforts to make chemical industries and transportation of chemicals safer and more secure while also improving readiness for catastrophes.

Safer chemicals

The report recommended development of safer chemicals by industry as well as better security and emergency response systems.

"We're trying to promote through this report the fact that we need to develop proactive initiatives. We need to be proactive in the way we prepare for these types of events," said University of Delaware Deputy Provost Havidan Rodriguez. Then director of the university's internationally recognized Disaster Research Center, Rodriguez was one of the 13 council developers of the report. "Communications is always a primary issue. The general tendency is 'let's not provide detailed information, because people will panic,' which is the wrong step to take when people are responding to these type of events."

During the Cheswold accident, however, some company and emergency officials repeatedly balked when asked to detail worst-case possibilities, including the potential for fire or explosions.

"In general, communities are not well prepared for these kinds of accidents," said Joanne Nigg, acting director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

"Disaster research has shown that people generally will not panic, and in these types of incidents the best way to assure that people respond well is to provide adequate, accurate and continuously updated information. If you hide the information that might lead to inappropriate behavior," she said.

Dover resident Ann Rider said that residents had to wait too long, for too little information, after the Dow Reichhold accident. Those complaints, she said, surfaced repeatedly in the "buzz" that followed the weekend emergency.

"This whole incident has scared everyone, to a point where maybe it needs to be looked at by someone in the city," Rider said. "The buzz from everyone I talked with afterward was that it was portrayed as handled well. But, in reality, a lot of people were left in the dark. If it's going to take three hours to warn people, then something else needs to be done."

Monday, September 11, 2006

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