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Anti-terror rules for trains in works

(The following article by Alex Breitler was posted on the Stockton Record website on December 20. Tim Smith is the BLETís California State Legislative Board Chairman.)

STOCKTON, Calif. -- That tank car sitting on the tracks for days could be loaded with harmless corn syrup - or potentially deadly chlorine.

Proposed federal rules to be published today are meant to secure chemical railroad tankers that could become tools in terrorists' hands.

Tank cars rolling down the tracks behind your home or sitting unprotected in a rail yard might carry two of the most-dangerous hazardous materials: chlorine, used to purify public water supplies, and ammonia, used in fertilizer.

Officials either won't or can't say how much of these toxins might be on the rails any given day. "We really don't know what's traveling through the county" every minute, said Ron Baldwin, San Joaquin County's emergency services director.

For similar reasons, the shipment of hazardous materials via railroad has drawn public scrutiny across the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as well as the more-recent bombings of passenger trains in England, Spain and India.

And in the future, the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear repository in Nevada could mean nuclear waste being shipped through dozens of states via truck and train.

A number of cities are considering ordinances that would force railroads to reroute trains around their communities.

"There is no security in the American railroad system, and there never will be. You can't put fences around 142,000 miles of track," said Fred Millar, a Virginia-based hazardous-materials expert who works as a consultant for the conservation group Friends of the Earth. The group supports rerouting.

Stockton doesn't qualify as a high-threat urban area, according to the federal government, but the new regulations could have some effect here:

Ľ Homeland security officials will be allowed to inspect railroads and rail yards, examining tank cars for signs of tampering.

Ľ Railroads must compile annual reports on hazardous-materials shipments.

Ľ Attendants must be present when tank cars are transferred.

Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe officials declined to talk about the implications of these rules for San Joaquin County, instead referring questions to the Washington-based Association of American Railroads.

About 1.8 million carloads of hazardous materials are transported each year throughout the nation. Beer, paint and propane are among the materials classified as hazardous by federal regulators, said Tom White, a spokesman for the association.

The more-dangerous toxins, such as chlorine and ammonia, add up to about 100,000 carloads per year, White said. Many of the tank cars people see in the city may be empty, however.

"We try very hard to make sure they are not just sitting around," White said.

Under federal law, railroads cannot deny shipment of these substances. While details aren't publicized, fire departments across the nation can request lists of hazardous materials moving through their communities.

The Stockton Fire Department, for instance, subscribes to a database that can give real-time data about materials on passing trains. But officials can't track every shipment.

"We handle more hazardous materials on the nation's railroads than people could ever imagine," said Tim Smith of Auburn, who represents the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "It's every day. Constant."

The tracks are indeed vulnerable, he said. Many rail yards lack lights and fences to keep the public out. Stockton should be concerned, Smith said, since the city is a hub for freight transport.

One of the federal government's worries is a terrorist planting a bomb onto a chlorine tanker in a rural area, then detonating that device as the car passes through a large city.

"It would be so simple," Smith said.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

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