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Railroads must find safest routes for toxic cargo

(The following story by Scott Streater appeared on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram website on July 7.)

FORT WORTH, Texas — Railroad companies are beginning a months-long process to determine the safest routes for transporting hazardous rail shipments as part of a new federal law that could have a big impact in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Studies show that the region receives more rail shipments of toxic chlorine gas than anywhere else in the country. Chlorine gas released into the air can travel close to the ground for miles at concentrations that can cause permanent lung damage and death.

Millions of people could be seriously injured by chlorine leaking from a rail car or storage tank, according to federal records. A Star-Telegram review of federal Risk Management Plans last year showed that chlorine — whether stored on-site or shipped by rail car or tanker truck — is by far the biggest toxic threat in the region, placing more than 1 million people in Tarrant County at risk each day.

The railroad industry does not have to begin using the safest routes until Sept. 1, 2009, said Steve Kulm, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman.

Fred Millar, a consultant with environmental group Friends of the Earth, said, "I’m extremely negative against this new rule." He notes that the new law allows the railroad industry to determine the safest routes with little oversight and that it supersedes state and local hazardous rail-routing laws.

"Not a single city in this country will be better-protected as a result of this regulation," he said.

The risk

The hazardous-rail-cargo law enacted last year was part of a broad Homeland Security bill that requires the U.S. Transportation Department to work with railroads and local leaders nationwide to find the safest routes for hazardous rail cargo and reroute it through less-populated areas if possible. About 100 plants nationwide store enough chlorine or other chemicals to harm at least 100,000 people, according to federal records. Texas has 23, the most in the nation.

A target for terrorists?

Federal officials are increasingly concerned about chlorine tanks being terrorist targets. A Homeland Security Council report in 2006 concluded that blowing up a chlorine gas tank in a highly populated area could kill 17,500 people and hospitalize as many as 1 million.

What rail carriers say

The Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group, did not oppose the rail car stipulation but said that instead of finding alternative routes, the federal government should require water and wastewater utilities to find alternatives to disinfecting with chlorine.

"The ultimate solution lies in the development and use of safer chemicals where possible," said Tom White, a railroad group spokesman.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

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