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Opinion: Chemical trains need rural route requirement

(The Bay City Times posted the following editorial on its website on January 7.)

BAY CITY, Mich. -- The Department of Homeland Security wants railroad cars full of hazardous chemicals to be secure when they are standing still.

It's a great idea.

But it's only a half measure.

Those chemical trains need to be safe from accidents, sabotage and terrorist attacks when they are rolling, too.

And roll, they do, right through the most heavily populated parts of Bay County and Bay City.

Many of them are coming from or going to the Dow Chemical Co. in Midland.

Dow is enthusiastic about Homeland Security's interest in keeping chemical shipments safe from attacks, and the people near them from harm. The company intends to work closely with the federal agency as rules are written for rail shipments.

The company is also working with tanker manufacturers to develop safer means of shipping chemicals by rail.

In this area, we're all too familiar with what can happen when a train laden with chemicals runs off its tracks.

In 1989, such a shipment bound for Dow and Dow Corning Corp. accidentally derailed and burned for days near Freeland, spewing a chemical cloud across the countryside. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes. Nobody was killed.

Thank goodness that incident didn't happen in a heavily populated area, such as Bay City.

Yet that is exactly where many of these trains run.

Tankers full of hazardous materials routinely run right through Bay City and surrounding townships.

It just doesn't make sense.

Any chemical or fuel with the potential to harm large numbers of people ought to be rolling on tracks as far away from cities as possible, whenever possible.

The Department of Homeland Security, however, hasn't made such a proposal.

Yet.

Several congressmen have pledged to make rural rail routes for hazardous chemicals a Homeland Security requirement.

Debate over such a proposal is overdue.

Already, nine cities across the nation, fearing for their safety, have passed local laws banning the rail shipment of hazardous materials through them.

Railroads, seeing the tremendous costs that rerouting or even building new rail lines would involve, have sued.

Both sides have a point.

As many people as possible need to be kept from harm, should a chemical tanker spill, either because of an attack or in an accident. That ought to mean mainly rural routes.

Yet the wheels of commerce must roll efficiently.

When a more rural rail route exists, that alternative should be used.

In our case, that could mean running more chemicals through the Freeland area, rather than right into Bay City's West Side, skirting Veterans Memorial Park and Defoe Park, and creeping through neighborhoods where thousands of people live.

Absolutely, railroad cars of chemicals should be protected from harm when they are standing still.

But any Homeland Security plan for rail safety also needs to cover trains that are on the move.

Where alternative routes exist, rural is the way to go.

Monday, January 8, 2007

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