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Trains open to attack, activists contend

(The following article by Ray Hagar was posted on the Reno Gazette-Journal website on April 4. Joe Carter is the BLET’s Nevada State Legislative Board Chairman.)

RENO, Nevada -- Supporters of a bill designed to increase railroad security in Nevada painted a disastrous scenario of what terrorists could do to Reno, Sparks and Las Vegas on Tuesday at the Legislature.

Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, the son of a former railroader, said he shuddered to think what could happen if a chemical explosion occurred in the rail yards in Sparks, about 100 yards away from John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino Resort.

“It is just a target waiting to happen,” said Anderson, who grew up near the Sparks rail yards. “If this happened in my community, we would lose a sizable part of the downtown area, three or four of the major economic centers.”

Assembly Bill 340, sponsored by Anderson, would force railroad operators to inform state agencies of dangerous chemicals and compounds that move through the state and require railroad yards and other installations to develop and submit security plans to state agencies.

The bill also would require background checks for railroad employees and subcontractors and demand that remote locomotive devices be secured when not in use.

The bill was heard for the first time at the Legislature just days after a report published in the Reno Gazette-Journal told of U.S Department of Energy plans to transport up to 4,500 casks of high-level nuclear waste through downtown Reno and Sparks every week for the next 24 years.

The plan is part of the DOE strategy to build a rail line to the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository just north of Las Vegas, Nevada officials said.

The Union Pacific Railroad, the only major railroad with yards in Nevada, often stores and transports dangerous substances such as chlorine and propane gas in the state, bill supporters told the Assembly Transportation Committee. With the current state of shoddy security, terrorists could easily sneak into a railroad yard in Sparks or Las Vegas and cause tankers, storage units -- or both -- to explode, they said.

If enough tankers exploded, the blast could rival that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb that helped end World War II, said Joe Carter of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. An explosion of one tanker of chlorine gas could lead to horrific results, Carter said.

“Given the level of security today in the state of Nevada, it would be child’s play to explode one of these (chlorine) tank cars, which is approximately 15,000 gallons,” Carter said. “And, depending on the population density and weather conditions, thousands could die before evacuation could be accomplished.”

The state rail system is easy prey for terrorists, Carter said.

Carter and Anderson’s concerns about railroad safety are overplayed, said Scott Hinckley, general director of safety and security for Union Pacific Railroad.

“Union Pacific takes security very seriously,” Hinckley said. “I’ve been sitting here and listening to this -- and consider that I spend almost all of my time in security, and others don’t -- and there are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings of what is taking place.”

The bill singles out Union Pacific for terrorism breakdowns but does not address issues with other methods of transportation, Hinckley said.

“Our disagreement with the bill deals with the fact that people are not aware,” Hinckley said. “What we think we need to do is draft the ability of handling terrorist issues by gathering all the people to the table and not just the railroads.”

Union Pacific also sponsors training programs, which many Nevada firefighters have attended, to help them train for chemical explosions, Hinckley said.

Some members of the committee were not comforted by Hinckley’s assessment.

“It is one of those situations that, when you start peeling back the onion, you get more and more uncomfortable as you go,” Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, said. “I’m not convinced that enough is happening on this very important security issue.”

“You come down to the Legislature thinking that you know of all the big issues, and then somebody drops this in your lap and you say, ‘Man, this is big problem’.”

The committee will review the bill at a future meeting, he said.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

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