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Cities seek disclosure of train cargo

(The Courier-Journal posted the following article by James Bruggers on its website on January 21.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Freight trains pull tankers of deadly chemicals through the Louisville area daily, but what they’re carrying is a mystery to most.

Cafe customers sipping cappuccinos just feet from a busy CSX rail line along Frankfort Avenue in the Clifton and Crescent Hill neighborhoods are in the dark.

So are the local officials who would be the first to respond to an accident that could sicken people as far as 15 miles from the site.

That’s because the federal government largely prevents state and local governments from regulating railroads in order to keep rules uniform across the country.

Concerns about what trains are carrying through cities became heightened last week when an 80-car train on its way to Louisville derailed, exploded and sent toxic smoke from burning cars of methyl ethyl ketone and cyclohexane billowing into the sky in Bullitt County.

“Do I worry about the trains? You bet I do,” said Lamarr Moore, a certified public accountant in Anchorage who has one rail line behind his business and another in front.

Responding to such concerns in light of post-9/11 terrorism fears, several cities have begun to move toward adopting their own railroad safety rules, which would challenge federal control and seek to limit or ban shipments of the most hazardous materials through their urban centers.

One member of the Louisville Metro Council, Mary Woolridge, has said she would like to see that happen here.

Local officials said they aren’t sure exactly how much hazardous material passes through the area each year. But just one Rubbertown chemical plant alone -- American Synthetic Rubber -- uses about 300 million pounds of butadiene brought in by trains, said Art Williams, director of the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District.

Butadiene has been linked to cancer in humans.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has asked the federal Department of Homeland Security to require railroads to tell cities when highly toxic shipments are coming their way, or to at least require better communication about the types of chemicals being shipped through communities.

“They wanted the federal government to…address this issue,” said Mark Williamson, spokesman for Akron, Ohio, Mayor Donald Plusquellic, who made the notification request in 2005 when he was president of the mayors organization.

When asked about the concerns, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen directed a reporter to proposed federal regulations that seek to improve tracking of hazardous materials shipped by rail, increase security of parked rail cars and require railroads to take safety and security concerns into account when determining routes.

Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, an industry lobbying group, said that in 2005, railroad companies agreed to provide local officials with a listing of the top 25 chemicals by volume coming through their communities -- if they ask for it.

Emergency management officials in Jefferson, Bullitt and Oldham counties said they were not aware they could obtain the listing from the railroad companies, but each said they would now ask.

“I don’t know what’s on those trains as we speak,” said Kevin Nuss, the emergency management director for Oldham County, noting that 25 trains pass through La Grange daily.

But even such a list might not be sufficient, said Mike Brown, the deputy director of the Louisville Metro Emergency Management Agency.

“Don’t tell us the top 25,” Brown said. “Tell us everything.”

He said he does not expect the list to be very helpful because it would be incomplete.

The railroad industry has argued that full advance disclosure of chemicals and other toxic materials in shipments could be an aid to terrorists in planning an attack. They also point out that the information is on manifests in locomotives, on placards on the rail cars and available from the companies in an emergency.

Judy Hodge, deputy director of the Bullitt County Emergency Management Agency, agreed that information on shipments could help terrorists, but she said knowing more in general about what is shipped through a community would help emergency personnel prepare responses to disasters.

Fred Millar, a railroad-safety advocate, said that notice of each shipment would be impractical but that mandatory annual reporting would be better than a voluntary approach.

Millar has been at the center of the debate over whether cities can order dangerous cargo to be routed around their population centers.

In the aftermath of 9/11, he helped write such an ordinance for Washington, which has since found itself locked in a court battle with the rail industry over a local attempt to control railroad routing.

Millar has been urging Louisville to join Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and other cities, which have introduced rail rerouting ordinances, and he has found a sympathetic ear in Woolridge.

She said the Bullitt County train derailment illustrates the need for Louisville, a rail hub with a complex of chemical plants, to look into a rerouting ordinance.

“This just affirms everything I believe. It can happen any day of the week, in anybody’s neighborhood,” said Woolridge, a Metro Council Democrat representing western Louisville’s District 3, whose residents are just east of Rubbertown.

Mayor Jerry Abramson, however, is taking a wait-and-see approach, said spokesman Matt Kamer.

“We are going to continue to monitor the D.C. situation,” Kamer said. “Our focus will continue to be on preparedness. We do a lot of training.”

White said railroads do some voluntary rerouting, such as around a large public gathering like a sporting event. But wholesale rerouting would only shift the risk from one community to another, he said.

Monday, January 22, 2007

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