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‘Greatest danger’ rides the rails

(McClatchy Newspapers circulated the following story by Linda B. Blackford on January 22.)

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky got very, very lucky last week: Two train wrecks in two days spewed hazardous materials into the air and water, causing evacuations but few injuries.

Still, experts say, the wrecks should bring more awareness to a potentially dangerous problem that rolls through most communities in Kentucky.

People don't realize it, but 30 rail cars a day carry hazardous materials through the heart of Lexington, said Pat Dugger, head of the Division of Environmental and Emergency Management for the city. Toxic inhalants, which include chlorine and ammonia, make up 15 percent of the cargo going through Lexington, according to figures from two years ago, the last numbers available.

"That's a significant risk we do have here, and it's more than people realize because we're not industrialized like Louisville," Dugger said.

Her counterpart in Louisville, Ky., Doug Hamilton, is more blunt:

"The greatest danger every community in America faces is from the catastrophic release of hazardous materials, whether it's the highway or the railroad," he said.

One study found that a ruptured car carrying chlorine could kill thousands of people in a city within minutes.

Louisville got especially lucky. Last Tuesday's derailment in nearby Bullitt County happened in a rural community south of the most heavily populated areas, where only 500 people needed to be evacuated. The chemicals released - cyclohexane, butadiene and others - burned high and hot but dispersed fairly quickly. (Long-term air pollution is not expected because the chemicals burned, experts said.)

Consider instead Graniteville, S.C. On Jan. 6, 2005, two trains crashed near a mill, puncturing a rail car of chlorine, considered the most dangerous chemical on the rails. Nine people died immediately from breathing the gas before officials even knew what it was. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 250 people were injured and 5,400 were evacuated, some of them kept out of their homes for more than two weeks.

That's the scenario every disaster coordinator plans for. In Dugger's case, it's a hazmat wreck at the Waller Avenue crossing near three major hospitals, the blood center, a nursing home and plenty of student housing.

"We've tried to work with the health care community to get them prepared to shelter in place, learn to immediately shut off heating and air conditioning," Dugger said.

But, Dugger said, the public needs to know more about what to do in such a situation, such as preparing emergency kits with necessary medication in case of evacuation.

"The more prepared people are, the better off we'll be," Hamilton said.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, trying to find out what chemicals are moving through communities has been more difficult. In fact, shortly after the terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security suggested that railroads erase the symbols that tell emergency personnel what chemical hazmat rail cars are carrying. A national coalition of firefighters and other first responders protested until the idea was dropped.

CSX Corp., Kentucky's major carrier, will, upon request, tell local governments which 25 chemicals go through their communities most frequently every year. CSX officials said last week that they faxed a train manifest listing all the chemicals to the Zoneton Fire Department within 15 minutes of the Bullitt County crash.

But because they don't know which chemicals will go through beforehand, it's difficult for communities to create emergency plans.

"Secrecy makes accidents harder to respond to," said Sean Moulton, director of federal information at OMB-Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that advocates for more transparent government. "If they fax the manifest to the fire department after the accident, and they don't have the proper equipment. ... It's about having the information before the accident happens, that's the only way they'll have proper equipment and training."

Many hazmat experts say that railroads have been neglected in the general furor over airplane and port security. Last Sunday, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published a lengthy series in which one of its reporters infiltrated 48 chemical plants and the freight lines that serve them across the country, leaving his business cards on rail cars full of chlorine that could easily be accessed by terrorists.

Many say that the rails are still the safest way to transport hazardous materials. The past year was the safest in a decade for hazmat train accidents, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. There were 652 accidents in which 20 hazmat cars released their chemicals. Across the country, 1,736 people were evacuated from their homes.

Kentucky doesn't produce many chemicals, so only 2 percent of railroad traffic that begins here is chemicals. (Seventy-five percent of that traffic is coal.) However, chemical transport makes up 8 percent of the traffic moving through or ending in Kentucky, according to the Association of American Railroads.

And trains could still pose a tempting target for terrorists bent on causing substantial casualties. The U.S. Naval Laboratory did a study in 2005 that said one ruptured rail car carrying chlorine near downtown Washington, D.C., could kill 100,000 people in 30 minutes.

The FRA and several chemical companies recently entered into an initiative to produce safer hazmat cars.

In 2004, the National Transportation Safety Board found that more than half the 60,000 railroad tank cars carrying hazardous materials are not built to industry standards and are more likely to break open after derailing.

That data helped persuade the Washington, D.C., council to pass an ordinance forcing railroads and trucks to reroute hazmat loads to avoid the city.

The ordinance is held up in court by CSX Corp., with support from the Bush administration and other railroads. But at least eight other large cities are considering similar rules.

"Can you tell me an easier way for al-Qaida to fulfill its stated goal of killing more people than to let loose a poison gas tank car that we have pre-positioned for their benefit in a major American city?" asked Fred Millar, a consultant with Friends of the Earth who helped get the D.C. ordinance passed. "Idon't know why others aren't already rerouting."

That idea will continue to be opposed by the railroads, though.

"It doesn't remove the risk; it just shifts it to other areas," said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. "When you reroute, you will have to travel longer distances and be subject to more handling, and that increases the risk of an accident."

And while people in Louisville might feel safer if hazmat cars weren't rumbling through downtown, those cars would probably be diverted to Lexington, a less-populous area, but one where people are just as opposed to dangerous chemical spills.

Rerouting also is not practical because the railroad bridge near downtown Louisville is one of the few crossing the Ohio River, Hamilton says.

"I don't think it could be realistically considered," he said.

A more long-term solution is one that railroads and their critics agree on: Stop the demand for shipping such dangerous chemicals.

Rick Hind, legislative director for the Greenpeace toxics campaign, said some cities have found it's simply easier to give up using chlorine in, say, sewage treatment, than to coordinate evacuating huge populations.

Of the four worst chemicals on the rails today - chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, hydrogen fluoride and sulfur dioxide - Hind says, there's good news and bad news.

"We have alternatives to all of them," he said. But many of them are still being used.

Kentucky American Water uses chloramines, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, to purify local water. Its chlorine is transported by truck, said spokeswoman Susan Lancho, and stored on site.

"We have a lot of training and procedures that are followed," she said.

Lexington's sewage treatment plant also uses trucked chlorine, Dugger said. But that doesn't mean chlorine isn't going through Lexington on the rails. The railroads send her percentages of what kinds of chemicals are on the tracks, rather than specifics. Flammable materials are the majority.

As Congress and the Kentucky General Assembly get back to work, lawmakers in both places are looking at rail security.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., plans to reintroduce a bill that would require rerouting hazmat transports around large cities and beef up security of railroads and rail yards.

And in Kentucky, Rep. Brent Yonts is working on legislation that would require agencies and the railroads themselves to create safety plans in case of terrorist attack.

However, in the wake of this past week, when mayhem occurred without any suggestion that terrorism was involved, Yonts said he would look into requiring similar plans for accidents, too.

(McClatchy correspondent Greg Kocher and news researcher Linda Niemi contributed to this report.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

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