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U.S. let chlorine rail through city

(The following story by James Pilcher appeared on the Cincinnati Enquirer website on December 30.)

CINCINNATI, Ohio — Thousands of gallons of potentially toxic chlorine are shipped each week through the heart of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, passing within yards of neighborhoods and just a few miles from downtown.

Now, a new federal rule says the rail shipments can continue -- even though a possible alternative cuts 300 miles in travel time, avoids two major cities and is the preferred route of the chlorine manufacturer.

Chlorine has never caused a serious accident on its way through the region. But it is one of the most dangerous chemicals shipped on the nation's railways -- even more toxic than the material that caused a major neighborhood evacuation 3-1/2 years ago in Cincinnati.

CSX Transportation, which operates one of the Midwest's largest rail yards at its Queensgate operation near downtown, is the only railroad serving PPG Industries' chlorine plant in Natrium, W.Va. For years, the railroad has shipped the company's chemicals to water treatment plants and other users in northern Ohio and Michigan along rail lines that first route trains south through Cincinnati and Columbus.

PPG had hoped that federal regulators would issue new rules encouraging CSX to use a competitor's lines for a shorter trip north.

But those hopes were dashed this summer, when the Federal Railroad Administration did not require railroads to consider alternative routes on competing rail lines when setting hazardous materials routes through America's cities and towns.

"We have no other options," Julie Bart, PPG's manager of rail and logistics services, wrote in an e-mail. "CSX takes hazmat through Cincinnati and other high-threat urban areas rather than choosing to lose revenue to another rail carrier that has a shorter, safer route."

CSX officials won't comment, saying they do not discuss safety and security issues, individual customer accounts or the amount of hazardous material shipped through Queensgate. The 160-acre rail yard handles about 100 trains a day carrying a wide range of products including orange juice, cars, auto parts, chlorine and other toxic chemicals.

Cleveland officials formally appealed the rule Monday. They had fought unsuccessfully for greater influence over where hazardous materials are shipped.

Cincinnati has not been so active. But Cincinnati District Fire Chief Edward Dadosky, who helps lead the city's homeland security efforts, said he will pursue shipment options with CSX and PPG.

"There are still a lot of unknowns with this -- especially whether this is really about safety and security or if this is about money and commerce," Dadosky said. "We really need to find out how much more of a hazard there really is, but I would hope this is where the federal government could help us."

Chlorine is a powerful oxidant used primarily for cleaning and disinfecting. It's most commonly used in water treatment plants. Because customers require such great amounts of the chemical, it's typically shipped by rail or pipeline.

New federal rules that became effective in June say railroads must consider 27 risk factors when setting routes for chlorine and certain other hazardous materials. Risk factors include the size of affected cities, the safety of tracks used and potential alternative routes.

But railroads are not required to consider using competitors' lines or allowing competitors to use their tracks. Nor are they required to consider allowing another carrier access to their customers, despite pleas from companies such as PPG.

Critics say the rule doesn't go far enough in setting standards or oversight of how railroads determine safe routes.

"This new rule really keeps the localities, the states and the shippers who make this stuff out of the process," said George Gavalla, former head of the office of safety for the Federal Railroad Administration and now a Norwich, Conn.-based railroad safety consultant.

Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad owns tracks that intersect with CSX lines 20 miles north of the PPG plant. A "relatively small amount" of PPG chlorine already is transferred from CSX to Wheeling at that point, Bill Callison, Wheeling's president, said. He said his company would have to decide whether it could transport any more chlorine on "a case-by-case basis."

"They would have to offer it first, and then we'd have to see whether we could handle it," Callison said. "There is a lot of liability associated with shipping chlorine, and we don't have nearly as big a system as CSX."

Overall, just a handful of accidents at Queensgate have involved hazardous materials in the past five years, and none involved a leak of any materials, according to a review of federal statistics.

Also, only about 100,000 train cars a year -- out of 32 million that travel the nation's tracks -- transport chlorine. That's about 0.3 percent of all shipments, according to rail industry officials.

But in August 2005, hundreds of residents and businesses were evacuated in the East End after a train car carrying styrene monomer leaked after it had been left unattended for at least six months at Queen City Terminals, a chemical distribution center in Linwood.

The incident lasted three days and led to a $2 million settlement in which the city reimbursed 1,200 homeowners about $1,800 each.

Elsewhere that year, nine people died and dozens more were injured in South Carolina when a Norfolk Southern train carrying chlorine derailed and leaked.

"One train car holds enough to create a cloud 15 miles long and four miles wide," said Fred Millar, a rail safety consultant who helped craft a Washington, D.C., rule that would have banned hazardous shipments within that city's limits. "The only reason this rule was even passed was to give railroads control, and to pre-empt any other city or state from stepping in. And the railroads got what they wanted."

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Steve Kulm defended the new rule, saying it gives railroads clear guidance for setting hazardous materials routes, which makes shipments safer and more secure. The rule gives regulators authority to impose alternative routes in extreme situations, but not on a competitor's tracks.

"The railroads ... have the appropriate knowledge of their own shipments and their own facilities," Kulm said.

Cincinnati Vice Mayor David Crowley said the city should have more say in where and how hazardous material is shipped.

"If in fact we have hazardous material coming through Cincinnati when there is another way to do it, we'd like to know why that is happening," Crowley said. "A lot of our citizens know nothing about the chemicals that are going just 100 yards from their homes. I understand that it is a matter of commerce, but we need to look into what tools we have to preclude that from happening."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

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