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No consensus on rail shipment regulations

(The following article by Carl Prine was posted on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review website on January 15. John Tolman is the BLET’s Vice President and National Legislative Representative.)

PITTSBURGH -- Last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security proposed new regulations designed to force railroads to better protect their cargoes of deadly poisons and explosives.

But critics in Congress and the chemical industry say the measures don’t go far enough to safeguard cities from terrorists.

And a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review probe of rail security across seven states published Sunday detailed ongoing failures with voluntary standards agreed to by the railroads and Homeland Security that already were supposed to guide anti-terrorism standards. A terrorist easily can reach millions of pounds of the most toxic or explosive substances on tracks inside America’s largest city, according to the Trib’s recent investigation, problems federal watchdogs agree are far too prevalent.

If adopted, the reforms would require rail workers to inspect chemical tank cars for bombs. Documented “chain of command” handoffs would occur when a locomotive drops off hazardous materials with a customer, cutting the days deadly gases idle on unprotected rail sidings.

Homeland Security would like to someday be able to track hazardous materials movements through 46 “High Threat Urban Areas” -- including Pittsburgh -- deemed likely ambush spots for terrorists. While more than 1.7 million railcars of hazardous materials are delivered annually, Homeland Security frets most about the 287 tankers of Toxic Inhalation Hazard gases trundling daily down the nation’s tracks.

Chlorine gas, anhydrous ammonia and 195 other less common but potentially catastrophic chemicals become weapons of mass destruction when released. A 2005 Norfolk Southern derailment in rural Graniteville, S.C., leaked only about 60 percent of a tank car’s chlorine, but the ooze killed nine people and injured 630.

Homeland Security fears the sudden rupture by terrorists of a toxic railcar -- often kept overnight, unguarded in major cities -- could trigger thousands of casualties.

“It would be irresponsible on our part if we continued to allow toxic materials sitting around for days on end in High Urban Threat Areas. That’s not a risk we want to keep taking,” said John P. Sammon, the transportation sector administrator at the agency’s Transportation Security Agency.

Information now classified

Homeland Security declined to speak to the Trib about the probe until it announced the security regulations. High-ranking agency officials, however, were briefed about the Trib’s findings more than a month before they unveiled the guidelines.

Embedded within the new proposals was a rule forever classifying information related to a security inspection, keeping from public view the results of any review or audit of a rail hazmat shipper, including port facilities, railroads and chemical plants.

Homeland Security officials had no comment on the timing of their new regulations or the Trib’s probe, or their proposal to ban dissemination of much of the information the Trib used to prepare these reports -- information that’s been available to the public for almost four decades. The agency’s Transportation Security Administration instead wanted to focus on why they needed new powers to inspect rail yards, switching terminals and other places carriers stow lethal shipments.

Critics doubt the proposed regulations will have an immediate impact on national security.

“Security always has been light years away from where it should be,” said John Tolman, legislative director of the 37,000-member Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen. “Sometimes, we seem to really operate backwards. I’m worried that it will take a 9/11 type of disaster before we wake up to what we need to do.”

Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have pledged to stiffen the proposed regulations while delving deeper into permanent solutions. On the table: Revamping the economic structure of the rail industry to speed delivery of sensitive shipments and prodding manufacturers to make “inherently safer” chemicals that won’t tempt terrorists.

“We have to look first at the small things. We have a lot of deficiencies in homeland security to fix, and we have to get started on stanching the bleeding first before we can start really fixing them systemically,” said U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware.

“It’s time for an awakening. We can’t do this in a demagogic way. We must work closely with industry and the president and everyone else, but the time has come to roll up our sleeves and get to work fixing this.”

Take a ride on the Reading

No initiative is more controversial than an offensive waged by chemical companies to restructure the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. It allowed major freight carriers to shed unprofitable lines, trim payroll and merge assets to form regionally dominant carriers. Today, more than 90 percent of chemical freight is carried by only six carriers, down from almost 40 of the largest railroads two decades ago.

While railroads revived, a revolution in just-in-time delivery and a tripling of imported goods on the tracks created more congestion. In 1993, the typical train traveled 23 miles per hour. Ten years later, it had slowed to 20 mph, according to the Association of American Railroads.

To chemical manufacturers, refineries and nuclear plants, that time isn’t just money, it’s a security issue. They believe their tankers -- about 12 percent of rail cargo, second only to coal -- are stored too long because of congestion caused by little railroad reinvestment in infrastructure and poor service by monopolies.

More competition in the industry might help, manufacturers say. But barring that, the rates they pay should be plowed back into track improvements and employee training before another Graniteville happens.

While the act mandates “reasonable” service, shippers say they get little relief from the Surface Transportation Board hearing their cases.

“Those companies know just how bad service is, but how loudly should they complain? If they do that, will service get even worse? What they deserve is an effective partnership with the railroads that puts safety and security first. We don’t have that now,” said Marty Durbin, federal affairs director of the American Chemistry Council representing almost 150 of the largest manufacturers.

The rail industry isn’t buying it.

“It has no merit in the area of security at all,” said Ed Hamberger, president of the American Association of Railroads representing the largest national carriers.

Smarter is safer

Hamberger details achievements by the largest rail companies since 2001 to revamp security, including an intelligence center that coordinates closely with spy agencies and the military. Railroads have facilitated “swaps” of the deadliest cargoes between chemical makers and their customers, shortening the distances hazmat must travel. The major carriers also recently rolled out a new security training program for track workers.

Federal law bars railroads from storing deadly hazmat in one spot for more than 48 hours, but customers can buy leases on sidings and keep gases and explosives there indefinitely -- something the new federal regulations won’t touch, critics say.

A proposal to scrap the nation’s fleet of toxic tankers for a larger model, believed by Hamberger to be as much as 60 percent safer, has met with lukewarm interest from chemical companies that would foot the bill -- estimated to cost $100,000 for each tanker, with possibly more than 60,000 cars slated for the scrap heap throughout the next decade, if the initiative gets the green light from government.

As common carriers, railroads are legally required to haul deadly cargoes. According to Hamberger, more than half of his industry’s insurance costs stem from delivering dangerous chemicals. With a $1 billion liability cap on a terrorist event, Hamberger says an attack could bankrupt a railroad.

He’s told Congress that chemical companies should quit making stuff terrorists want to attack and start producing safer substances. He’s found friends in an environmental lobby that’s championing legislation designed to phase out the deadliest toxics, if financially or scientifically feasible.

“The day after a catastrophic attack on a chemical plant, or a railcar on a train, no one would argue against the elimination of these chemicals if there are cost-effective substitutes, and posterity will never forgive Congress if they don’t do something about this in the next session,” said Greenpeace federal affairs director Rick Hind.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has drafted legislation he plans to introduce this month that would push manufacturers to scrap the most toxic chemicals for safer substitutes.

“Doing so would reduce the number of shipments of these toxic materials before they are ever placed in trains, and therefore would also reduce the number of potential terrorist targets and catastrophic accident scenarios,” Markey said. “That also means less money that the industry needs to spend on guarding these railcars while they are unloaded.”

Chemical manufacturers estimate they have spent at least $3 billion guarding hazmat at the railhead since 2001. They say the ingredients in their vats should be decided by company scientists, not lawmakers, and too many important industries rely on materials that can’t rapidly be substituted, such as the chlorine that disinfects water. They would rather the railroads simply get their products to their customers on time with as little exposure to terrorism as possible.

“We work very closely with the railroads on a number of issues, so we think this isn’t impossible,” the American Chemistry Council’s Durbin said.

Monday, January 15, 2007

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