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Opinion: Terror threats ought to factor into rail routes

(The following column by Fred Millar appeared on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune website on June 18, 2009.)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. ó As Minnesota and U.S. taxpayers wrestle with the costs and benefits of constructing a $325 million, 48-mile rail bypass around Rochester ("Rail project needed to protect Mayo," June 7), three little-mentioned perspectives should be added to guide the debate.

First, in the spirit of the two federal right-to-know laws, the public is owed vivid assessments by local emergency planners of the worst-case scenarios for the release of hazardous materials from railroad cars. For example, the impacts of a toxic ammonia gas cloud or an ethanol explosion or fire should be overlaid on detailed maps to allow public comparison of existing and prospective rail routes through and around Rochester. Such worst-case releases can result either from an accident or from a terrorist attack.

Specifically as a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have reassessed what is an acceptable urban railcar risk and have had a national debate on permanently and protectively rerouting the most dangerous cargoes around the 46 major U.S. target cities (which include the Twin Cities). Existing, nontarget rail routes are in many cases clearly available.

The stakes are high. During hearings the District of Columbia held in 2005, for instance, representatives of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory testified that in a crowded urban event, a worst-case release of a chlorine gas cloud from just one pressurized, 90-ton railcar could cause 100,000 deaths and injuries. The Chlorine Institute's venerable "Pamphlet 74" has for decades estimated the worst-case release from one chlorine railcar as being 4 miles wide and traveling 15 miles downwind, a fact cited in the railroads' (unresolved) federal court case aimed at deterring protective local rerouting.

Major accidental railcar toxic-gas releases have been relatively rare. So far the United States has not had a disastrous accidental release on the scale of the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India. The Union Carbide gas cloud there killed an estimated 8,000 people overnight and seriously injured 100,000. By contrast, the worst accidental chlorine releases in the United States have happened in tiny towns (in Graniteville, S.C., killing 9) or rural areas (in Macdona, Texas, killing 3). Sobered federal officials have mandated some new rail-safety rules, but not rerouting. Moreover, the new speed restrictions and a gradual, decadeslong replacement of the whole ultrahazardous cargo tank car fleet with stronger steel tanks are not designed to deter any competent terrorist.

Second, since the potential consequences of an urban toxic-gas release are huge, terrorism risks should be a key aspect of the Rochester bypass decision. The Mayo Clinic is an iconic health provider with an international reputation that vividly includes its history of treating oil-rich Arabic princes and their families. Experts on the threat posed by Al-Qaida report that many of these princes' subjects have declared it their highest priority to dethrone U.S.-supported autocrats in favor of a more-representative and less-repressive form of government. We should assume that the typically careful jihadist terrorist planning since 9/11 might well include highly symbolic U.S. targets that both attack the princes and clarify their U.S. support.

Third, protective rail-chemical rerouting around the Twin Cities should be part of the regional discussion. Minnesota political leaders can take the high road here. They should press for a vigorous and urgent national intervention by Congress and the Obama administration to proactively reroute existing rail lines around all major target cities. Terrorism risk reduction requires we overturn the railroad-friendly Bush administration's "midnight regulation" that gives the railroads until March 2010 to make secret routing decisions based on secret data. Railroad lobbyists designed the rule precisely so railroads can continue holding urban citizens at great risk and to shut out significant inputs from state and local officials.

Beyond its tangible harm, a successful terrorist attack could strike a blow to a president struggling to deal with other crises. Protective rerouting of rail hazmat cargoes is a crucial means by which to reduce our terrorism vulnerabilities.

(Fred Millar is a rail security consultant for Friends of the Earth in Washington, D.C.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

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