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Railroads join environmental groups, security experts on hazards of toxic cargo

(The following story by Anna M. Tinsley appeared on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram website on October 11, 2009.)

FORT WORTH, Texas — Railroad companies, after hearing dire warnings for years about the dangers of transporting chlorine and other toxic cargos, are uniting with environmental groups and homeland security experts in trying to lessen the hazards.

Acknowledging the "remote but deadly risks" associated with some shipments, the companies asked federal regulators this year for the right to reject requests to move hazardous materials over long distances and through highly populated areas such as Fort Worth.

Their request was denied, and locally owned railroad Union Pacific took matters into its own hands and created a tariff requiring the shipper — not the railroad — to be liable in case of any accident, prompting chlorine industry officials to fight the tariff in court and ultimately win a reprieve.

But concern about a possible accident or attack on rail cars shipping toxic chlorine gas — which, if released, could cause permanent lung damage or death — remains high, especially in North Texas, which receives more rail shipments of chlorine than anywhere else in the country.

More than 100 trains cross through Metroplex neighborhoods every day; rail companies move about 110,000 carloads of toxic cargo each year.

"These shipments are endangering people," said Fred Millar, a Virginia-based rail safety activist and a consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Friends of the Earth. "Railroads are going to continue putting enormous numbers of Americans at risk. . . . If there’s a terrorist attack that uses these cargos, we have pre-positioned [these tanks] to their benefit in our urban cities."

At the same time, the government is moving forward with new safeguards, such as requiring railroads to route hazardous chemicals around, rather than through, key urban areas including the Metroplex as well as requiring new tanks that transport chemicals to be stronger and more durable.

Paul M. Donovan, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who defended the chlorine industry in the court case, said that his clients go to great lengths already to ensure safety and that "nobody has ever tried to attack a chlorine car."

"The chlorine industry spends a huge amount of time and effort . . . where all we do is work on safety and security issues," he said. "We’re very concerned that this stuff moves safely and securely. If it doesn’t, we’re going to be out of business."

'Deadly risks’

This year, Union Pacific officials filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, asking to refuse a request to ship chlorine from U.S. Magnesium, a plant in Utah, to Texas and Louisiana.

Union Pacific said the long distance would lead to "remote but deadly risks" in communities, such as Fort Worth, that the chlorine would pass through. Also, other chlorine supplies were closer to the Texas and Louisiana businesses, Surface Transportation Board documents and news reports show.

"We prefer not to ship this material at all," Patricia Reilly, vice president of communications for the Association of American Railroads, has said.

Many shippers and receivers filed opposing Union Pacific’s petition; railroads and railroad associations filed in support of it.

In the end, the board said that Union Pacific had an obligation to set rates and provide service and that railroads are obligated to transport hazardous materials when safety regulations are met. Union Pacific and Surface Transportation Board officials did not respond to requests for comment, instead referring the Star-Telegram to the board decision.

Union Pacific changed its rates and put in place a measure that requires the shipper, not the railroad, to be responsible for damages and losses if there’s an accident, even if the railroad was at fault. Trade groups, The American Chemistry Council and The Chlorine Institute sued in Utah to try to remove that provision.

"The problem is they wanted to indemnify us for things they did wrong," Donovan said. "They want us to insulate them from their own negligence. . . . That removes any incentive for them to be safe."

Ultimately, Union Pacific removed the rate change and the provision requiring shippers to be responsible, and the groups dropped the lawsuit, Donovan said.

"Someone can always wave their arms and scream and say this is a peril," he said. "But chlorine is not the weapon of choice."

A vulnerable area

Chlorine, one of the most commonly made chemicals in the United States, has many uses, including killing bacteria in drinking and swimming pool water and making pesticides and rubber, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

At room temperature, it is a yellow-green gas with a strong odor similar to that of bleach. It was used as a weapon during World War I; exposure can cause wheezing, burning of the eyes and skin and fluid buildup in the lungs. At high levels, it can bring on eye and skin burns, lung collapse and death, according to the center.

Chlorine is generally shipped in liquid form. When exposed to air, it becomes a deadly gas.

In 2004, a train wreck near San Antonio sent chlorine gas into the air, killing at least two people and sending 49 to the hospital. In 2005, a train wreck in South Carolina also released chlorine gas, killing at least nine and injuring hundreds.

A Homeland Security report shows that an attack involving a chlorine tank could kill 17,500, hospitalize more than 100,000 and force the evacuation of thousands of others. Homeland Security considers Texas to be among the most vulnerable areas, with so many large cities, train yards, storage areas, chemical plants and railroad tracks.

Estimates show that the bulk of hazardous materials are shipped each year on about 100,000 rail cars, many of which pass through major cities. Federal transportation and railroad officials say those make up less than 0.5 percent of all train cars.

Safety measures

In the past year, new safety and security initiatives regarding the shipping of chlorine have gone into effect, said Scott Jensen, a spokesman with the American Chemistry Council.

Congress approved a 2007 homeland security measure that requires railroads to plan routes to ship hazardous cargo around major U.S. cities, rather than through them, if possible. Some of those routes were due to be finished Sept. 1. The rest must be finished by March 31. The routes are not being released publicly and are to be reviewed only by federal rail officials.

The same measure also requires railroads to conduct risk analyses each year to determine both the safety, and security risks, along the current routes for the shipments.

Also, new rules by the U.S. Transportation Department also went into place for any train car built after March 16 that will carry the chemicals. Railcars carrying those chemicals, under new federal rules this year, must have better puncture resistance and a thicker inner shell, and the front and back end of the car must be strengthened to protect the entire car in case of an accident.

In addition, the Transportation Security Administration enacted rules to ensure that rail cars are secure while not moving and put in place a system to keep track of rail cars on the move.

Monday, October 12, 2009

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