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Rail lines in Tucson could be terror bait

(The following article by Enric Volante was posted on the Arizona Daily Star website on April 1.)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- More than 1,600 rail tanker loads of poisonous gas vulnerable to terrorist attack roll through Tucson in a year, potentially threatening most of the city.

A chlorine disaster could kill people up to 5.6 miles downwind of Union Pacific Railroad in Tucson.

In a less-likely or “worst-case” scenario in which the weather and other conditions are ideal for toxic terrorism, the deadly fog could maim and kill up to 9.6 miles away, newly disclosed emergency-planning documents show.

“That’s incredible,” said Gwyneth Scally, an artist whose warehouse studio is just off the tracks near North Sixth Avenue and East Ninth Street. “I’m sure that would never occur to the people in the (upscale) residences just a block or two off.”

Security experts have known for years that terrorists could try to blow open a highly hazardous rail car to send a lethal cloud across a U.S. city.

The chemical industry is scrambling to design rail cars less likely to break open if they derail. Congress, while moving to increase funding for railroad security, continues wrestling with whether to reroute hazardous cargos from densely populated areas when possible.

Metro Tucson, home to more than a million people, has grown up around Arizona’s biggest rail yard. Kids play in neighborhoods close enough to hit a baseball into the rail yard, which borders Barraza-Aviation Parkway, stretching nearly from the 22nd Street Bridge to the Palo Verde overpass. Trains crawl or hurtle through the metro area on the state’s busiest line, which links cities from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Phoenix is a branch line on this economically vital “Sunset Route.”

That main line’s potential appeal to saboteurs is one reason the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently named Tucson to a list of 45 areas of “high threat” for terrorism.

There is no known immediate threat to Tucson. The “high threat” designation allows the city and other places to compete for funds to continue hardening themselves against attack. Many say the country has focused on securing airlines and, to a lesser extent, passenger rail lines, while largely ignoring the freight lines.

“When you look at the amount of money that both the federal government and the railroads are spending on railroad security, you just have to shake your head and wonder why there isn’t more focus on that,” said Kris Mayes, a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, which inspects railroads on behalf of the Federal Railroad Administration.

“It’s particularly relevant at a time when Union Pacific is proposing to lay down the first new railroad track in Arizona in more than 50 years, which will almost double the rail traffic through Tucson and the rest of Arizona,” she said.

The area hit by poison or explosion would depend on where a tank car blows up or derails, the rate at which the gas or liquid gets released and the atmospheric conditions that affect how it spreads.

“There’s highly hazardous things that go through, I would say, on a daily basis,” said Brad Olson, a Tucson Fire Department deputy chief in charge of disaster planning.

Olson and Pima County emergency-response officials said Union Pacific cooperates with local authorities, provides free training to local hazardous-materials responders and is quick to disclose what’s on board once a derailment occurs.

Unlike many businesses that make or use hazardous materials, railroads are exempt from key right-to-know laws designed to let citizens know what environmental hazards are in their neighborhoods. When the city of Tucson recently requested a list of the most commonly shipped hazardous materials, Union Pacific required the city to sign a standard nondisclosure agreement.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis told the Star he would not divulge the types and quantities of lethal loads “because of the security enhancements.”

But documents prepared in October for the Arizona State Emergency Response Commission give a glimpse at what comes down the rails. AMEC Earth and Environmental Inc. obtained carload counts from the railroad as part of a study for the commission.

In 2005, Union Pacific carried 629 tanker loads of poisonous chlorine on the tracks at Tucson and east of the city, the records show.

Another 998 loads at Tucson were anhydrous ammonia — the poison involved in a North Dakota derailment that killed one person and injured 1,442 five years ago.

Those two gases are highly toxic when inhaled — the type of cargo that is drawing attention these days in part because insurgents in Iraq have increasingly blown open tanker trucks hauling chlorine.

Together, those two gases make up 3 percent of the 231,502 cars loaded with hazardous materials that traveled through Southern Arizona in 2005.

The railroad also hauled 2,439 carloads of liquefied petroleum gas.

Other types of highly hazardous cargo also rolled down that Tucson-area track, including 754 carloads of flammable toluene diisocyanate and 541 loads of corrosive hydrochloric acid.

Similar amounts of most of these hazardous chemicals show up on the tracks west of the city, suggesting most hazardous freight passes through Tucson instead of being unloaded here.

The documents show only the top 20 most-recorded hazardous materials.

Railroad officials say that since 9/11 they have taken big steps to secure rail yards and hazardous shipments, including tightening access to key facilities, restricting information that terrorists could use to plan an attack and training employees to report suspicious activity and to keep mum about sensitive information.

“Individual terminal plans are something I cannot comment on,” Davis told the Star, “but I can say our employees and the public have become a great (help) by reporting anything out of the ordinary to UP police or local law enforcement.”

Tucson’s Union Pacific main yard, a maintenance facility, appeared easy to get into when a reporter made unannounced visits in recent weeks.

On the east end near Palo Verde overpass, anyone could park a car and walk alongside the tracks into the yard. A reporter loitered there 20 minutes without being challenged. Elsewhere, emergency entrances to the rail yard were open and unguarded.

Finding highly hazardous loads outside the yard, as a terrorist might do, is even easier. On a recent weekday afternoon, a reporter reached four tankers marked to carry explosive liquid petroleum gas as they paused on the tracks for 40 minutes within 200 feet of golfers swinging their clubs at practice tees. A reporter also had no trouble reaching propane tankers paused on other parts of the track.

A terrorist could blow up a truck on the road, of course. But a 30,000-gallon rail tanker has more appeal as a target because it carries nearly three times the hazardous material and because a rail wreck promises more news coverage, said Capt. Frank Duarte, head of homeland security for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

“Terrorists generally want something spectacular. That’s part of their game,” he said.

Former trucker Emmett P. Gracey thinks officials might be more eager to reroute highly hazardous loads if they’d been with him in Kingman in 1973.

He and his co-driver were eating in a restaurant as workers across the street unloaded liquid propane from a rail tank car.

“We had just gotten up to go out and they told us to get out of there, the propane was on fire,” Gracey recalled last week.

Witnesses reported the rail car erupted in a 350-foot fireball, destroying or damaging gas stations, restaurants and motels along U.S. 66. Gracey hit the ground near his truck as the heat seared the tops of his ears and head.

“I remember thinking, ‘God almighty. You’re supposed to lie on the ground when you get hit by fire, but I’ve got to get out of here!’ “

A highway patrolman hurried to evacuate others until “he shriveled up like a ball,” Gracey said. “You couldn’t even recognize him.”

All but one of 13 who died were volunteer firefighters and other public-safety officers responding to the emergency. More than 100 people suffered burns or other injury. Rail tankers have been strengthened since then to prevent that type of catastrophic explosion.
Concerned after Kingman, the Tucson City Council in 1973 sought to reroute hazmat shipments but decided the rails were under federal control.

But in the wake of 9/11, the city councils of Washington, D.C., and some other cities have challenged federal control and moved to limit the most hazardous rail shipments. The railroads are fighting back in court, saying the local laws wrongly interfere with interstate commerce.
UP spokesman Davis said rerouting promises to increase not only transit time — which increases the risk of terrorism or accidents — but “also shifts any risks from one community to the other.”

Advocates of rerouting say moving cargoes through less-densely-populated areas makes them an unappealing target, so there’s no real risk.

Railroad officials stress that they are required by law to accept shipments of hazardous materials, but Congress should cap their liability if they must carry toxic, inhalable gases like chlorine and ammonia, even though accidents are rare.

“Every time a railroad moves one of these shipments, though, it faces potentially ruinous liability,” Edward R. Hamberger, head of the Association of American Railroads, told a U.S. House panel last summer.

Accident or terrorist attack, part of a long-term solution may be finding alternatives to some of the scariest chemicals we use.

For example, Tucson dramatically reduced its vulnerability with respect to Tucson Water when the utility phased out chlorine gas for treating water in the 1990s.

Others have proposed dedicating a single cross-country rail line to hazardous materials to avoid high-risk cities.

Frank Walter, a hazmat specialist in the University of Arizona emergency-medicine division, warns that the threat of toxic terrorism in this country remains at an all-time high. He calls that a significant concern and says cities must be prepared to respond.

“Obviously, we are on a major rail artery,” he said. “So in terms of the possibility, it’s always present.”

Monday, April 2, 2007

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