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Editorial: Move chemical trains out of town

(The following editorial appeared on The Bay City Times website on October 9.)

BAY CITY, Mich. — Wheels turning in Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration could address the biggest concern that played out in a mock derailment of a railroad train carrying hazardous chemicals through Bay City.

In that disaster drill on Sept. 24, a fictitious cloud caused by the supposed spill of anhydrous ammonia hurt an imaginary 39 people.

Near Bay City's Cass Avenue Boat Launch on the Saginaw River, 300 emergency workers practiced their moves, should the worst happen.

Our worry is that the worst would happen - right in the middle of Bay City's neighborhoods.

Trains hauling tanks of chemicals loop through the heart of Bay City and some neighboring townships regularly on their way to and from Dow Chemical Co. and Dow Corning Corp. plants in Midland.

Most everyone in town who cares knows this. And a large number of people also allow that the wheels of commerce must be allowed to roll.

But safely.

So the mock disaster dubbed "Locomotion Commotion" was a welcome sign that emergency responders are probing for weak spots, and honing their skills.

Yet, there must be better routes than through city centers for these tanks of chemicals, many of them hazardous, and potentially deadly.

That's the gist of a law in a Homeland Security bill that Congress passed year ago that requires trains hauling chemicals to take the safest routes, outside of cities.

In April, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that it would require railroads to study the routes that hazardous materials take on their rails. One of the 27 safety factors for them to consider is population density. Another is proximity to areas where people congregate, such as city parks.

Both criteria would include Bay City's dense neighborhoods, and Veterans Memorial and Defoe parks that border our local chemical train route.

By September next year, railroads are supposed to have gathered enough information on their cargo and routes to begin, where possible, rerouting trains that carry hazardous materials.

For the chemicals that slowly wend their way through Bay City, there's an obvious alternative. Send them to the Midland chemical plants mostly through farm country, on the rails that run through Freeland.

We know what a railroad chemical spills looks like. It's plenty scary. Thousands of people were evacuated near Freeland when railroad cars carrying hazardous chemicals derailed and burned in 1989.

Nobody was killed. But it might have been a disaster in the tightly packed neighborhoods of a city such as ours.

That's the nightmare scenario that emergency workers gathered to prepare for in the mock Locomotion Commotion last month.

Emergency workers learned a lot.

And we learned something that troubled us. Deputy Bay County Executive Michael Gray declared that the names of people killed in such a scenario would not be released to the press. That came on top of a mock press release never labeled as a fake announcing 39 casualties, blocking the media from covering the event and withholding information - all after we were invited to participate in the drill.

The press is here to help. We can provide timely, accurate information to the people in the event of a chemical train wreck.

And we are part of the solution to hazardous shipments traveling through Bay City, in our call to action in this column, now repeated for the second time in 20 months:
Move those chemical trains out of our town.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

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