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Toxic train cargo seen as vulnerable to attack

(The following article by Anna M. Tinsley was posted on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram website on January 29. John Bentley is the BLET’s spokesman.)

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Any one of them could be a target.

Every day, more than 100 trains pass through Metroplex neighborhoods, and thousands others crisscross their way through America, some carrying toxic chemicals that could produce a catastrophe if a terrorist attack released them in a heavily populated area.

More than five years after 9-11, federal officials worried about the next big target are considering proposed rules limiting the time chemicals sit unwatched in rail yards, requiring inspections for explosives and mandating better tracking of hazardous chemicals at all times.

“The biggest danger ... is the possibility of a terrorist blowing up a car which causes ... dangerous chemicals to be emitted into the air,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said recently.

It could kill or injure thousands of people, contaminate water supplies and cause millions of dollars in damage, Homeland Security officials contend.

That’s a huge concern in Fort Worth, where at least three companies -- BNSF Railway, Union Pacific and the Fort Worth & Western Railroad -- have rail lines that run through the city.

That sentiment is shared around the country.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., has been one of the most vocal critics of the federal government, saying it should have acted more quickly and decisively.

“Rail systems in the United States are at significant risk of terrorist attack. Notwithstanding, the Congress and President Bush have been unable or unwilling to take the necessary steps to significantly enhance rail security,” Biden said in a congressional report.

“Around the world, terrorist attacks against rail systems have been increasing in frequency for the last 25 years, and al-Qaeda operatives have directly targeted U.S. rail systems on numerous occasions. Historical studies have shown that rail attacks are typically intended to cause mass casualties. ... As a result, millions of Americans who utilize our rail systems are at risk and it seems that the threat is increasing.”

Railroad employee union officials agree that current regulations don’t do enough to protect the public, and they argue that the proposed changes don’t go far enough either.

“It’s a big disappointment,” said John Bentley, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents about 55,000 members nationwide, including 3,500 in Texas.

But with or without the proposed rules, railroad officials say they are working to make sure all their trains and shipments are safe and secure. Chertoff has repeatedly credited the industry for taking voluntary action.

“Ever since 9-11, we have stepped up our safety and security by creating our own safety plans,” said Joe Arbona, regional spokesman for Union Pacific. “We support safety and security.

“It’s ingrained in our daily work.”

Not enough

Every day, common chemicals such as chlorine or anhydrous ammonia are shipped cross-country on trains.

Chlorine and anhydrous ammonia are routinely transported in liquid form. But when exposed to air, they become deadly gases.

In 2004, a train wreck near San Antonio sent chlorine gas into the air, killing at least two and sending 49 to the hospital. In 2005, a train wreck in South Carolina also released chlorine gas, killing at least nine and injuring hundreds.

An actual attack involving a chlorine tank, though, could kill 17,500, hospitalize more than 100,000 and force the evacuations of thousands of others, according to a 2005 Homeland Security report.

A worst-case-scenario plan filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that chemicals could drift 18 miles and potentially harm, kill or displace more than 1 million residents if a rail disaster hit a heavily populated area.

Homeland security considers Texas to be among the most vulnerable areas, with so many large cities, train yards, storage areas, chemical plants and railroad tracks.

Union officials point to such vulnerabilities in saying the proposed rules don’t do much to help railroad workers.

James Brunkenhoefer, a Texan who serves as the U.S. National Legislative Director for the Cleveland-based United Transportation Union, said current and proposed rules do very little to guard the public and rail employees.

“After 9-11, we wanted to amend our contracts to ask for additional training. ... They demurred,” he said of management. “The only thing they want to talk to us about is raising our healthcare costs and lowering staff levels.”

Union workers want their employees to be better trained to guard against potential attacks and accidents. And they want protection for whistleblowers who report problems.

In a 2005 Teamsters Rail Conference survey of rail workers, 94 percent of respondents said rail yard access was not secure, 83 percent said they hadn’t received training dealing with terrorism in the previous year, and 70 percent said they had seen trespassers in rail yards.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that report should have been a wake-up call to the Bush administration. “When I see reports like this, I’m reminded of the National Weather Service warning that Katrina was coming and that everyone needed to be ready, only to have FEMA fail to heed the warnings,” he said.

Markey and other critics, including Fred Millar, a representative of Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, criticize the proposed rules because they don’t force industry to re-route chemicals around potential target cities.

“They are pre-positioning these explosive, radioactive and poison gas cargoes in our highest threat areas, exactly where the terrorists want,” Millar said. “The most sensible immediate remedy is to send the potential poison gas weapons around the target cities whenever possible, then to begin substituting safer chemicals for industrial uses.”

Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said the public needs to understand “that much of our rail system was built at a time when it was considered desirable to put the rails through the cities. And that poses two problems.

“First of all, if you’re going to deliver these chemicals, like chlorine, which happens to be very important in purifying water, if you’re going to deliver it to a city, you’ve got to get it into the city.

“And second, to do a lot of rerouting would result, I think, in a substantial reconstruction of the rail industry and the rail network in this country.”

Officials estimate that the security package proposed by the Department of Homeland Security could cost the industry and government $162 million over 10 years. Federal officials want feedback from the public by Feb. 20.

Being vigilant

Estimates indicate that the bulk of the hazardous materials are moved each year on about 100,000 rail cars, many passing through major cities. Federal transportation and railroad officials say they constitute less than one-half of 1 percent of all train cars.

Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said it’s important to study ways to ensure that the community stays safe.

“To be sure, the rail industry has a long history of transporting hazardous cargo, and they have a proven safety track record,” said Moncrief, who was recently named to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Homeland Security Task Force.

“But in these days and times, it’s comforting to know that the federal government is reviewing other ways to ensure freight moves through urban areas safely and securely.”

Local rail officials say their companies are doing what they can to make their industry safe.

“We all receive training on being vigilant in our place of work,” said Arbona, of Union Pacific. “We have 50,000 employees, and that many sets of eyes are looking very closely at anything that looks out of place.

“As for these federal guidelines, we’re looking at the details and we want to work with customers, shippers, receivers, so we can get it done in time.”

Union Pacific, BNSF and Kansas City Southern officials referred comment to the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Railroads, which said the nation’s major railroads are committed to security and safety.

“We look forward to working with DHS -- and with those who make and use chemicals -- in this joint effort to keep our nation safe and secure,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the association.

Hazardous goods

Some materials transported by rail are especially problematic. When liquid chlorine is released, for example, it turns into a gas, stays close to the ground and spreads rapidly.

Dangerous routes

Federal officials have long considered railroads that transport toxic chemicals a prime target for terrorists because many rail lines pass through heavily populated areas like the Metroplex.

Security proposals

Proposed federal rules would limit how long chemicals are unwatched in rail yards, mandate better tracking of toxic materials and require inspections for bombs.

What do you think?

Federal officials say they want to know what people think of the proposed rules by Feb. 20.

Security proposals

Homeland Security proposals essentially limit the time tankers loaded with hazardous materials can sit in rail yards, require rail companies to agree to federal inspections, keep track of where tankers carry hazardous materials and hire workers to oversee the transfer of the cargo when it reaches its destination. Transportation Department proposals require railroads to analyze safety and security risks for moving hazardous materials and then choose the safest routes.


Comments on either proposal can be submitted at dms.dot.gov or www.regulations.gov or sent to the Docket Management System, U.S. Department of Transportation, Room Plaza 401, 400 Seventh Street S.W., Washington, D.C., 20590-0001. The Homeland Security proposal is under docket No. TSA-2006-26514; the Transportation Department’s is RSPA-04-18730 (HM-232E).

Monday, January 29, 2007

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