Risk on the rails: Safety top issue for hazardous materials

(The following article by Mike Stark was posted on the Billings Gazette website on February 28.)

BILLINGS, Mont. -- Two things scare Alan Riley as he looks down the long line of rail cars in Lockwood.

One is a derailment and spark that could set off an explosion in the crowded rail yard.

Another is a chlorine leak that would have authorities scrambling to evacuate neighbors to avoid a deadly cloud of gas.

The Lockwood fire chief, though, doesn't lose sleep over those catastrophic scenarios.

He knows railroads have a good safety record, that emergency crews are trained for hazardous situations and that no one takes the risks lightly.

But he also knows that when things go wrong on a railroad - especially when it involves hazardous materials - it can be ugly. He's careful not to let his guard down.

"It can get bad quick," Riley said.

Last month, a train derailed in Graniteville, S.C. The chlorine that leaked killed nine people, injured 250 and forced the evacuation of more than 5,400.

The spill also reignited debate over the transportation of hazardous materials along the rails, especially when the loads pass through populated areas.

The city council in Washington, D.C., voted earlier this month to require rail companies to reroute hazardous materials around the city. The decision, which has been challenged by the railroad industry, has prompted speculation that other cities might take similar votes.

"There's a whole movement to keep rails out of cities," said transportation consultant Terry Whiteside of Billings. "Railroads are what made the cities grow and now cities are saying 'can you move the tracks out of the city?' What's needed here is a continual focus on safety."

Audio Slideshow

A look at hazardous materials on Montana railways. Click here.

In Billings, a citizen group called Over, Under or Around, has been pushing for a study of moving the railroad tracks out of downtown. Marion Dozier, the group's chair, said that while congestion is a key factor in their proposal, safety is also an issue.

Dozier said her former husband, a firefighter, worried about the daily shipments of hazardous material on the rails through populated areas - and what would happen if there was a major accident.

"You can see it's happening in other places and the potential is there," Dozier said.


Rail accidents involving hazardous materials are rare, especially the ones that kill people. The Association of American Railroads notes that 99.9998 percent of hazardous materials that travel by rail make it safely.

"But when something happens on the railroad it can be spectacular and draws a lot of attention," said Tom White, a spokesman for the association.

Montana has had a few brushes with haz-mat disasters on the rails.

An April 1996 rail crash in Alberton resulted in the second-largest chlorine spill in U.S. history, the evacuation of about 1,000 people and one death.

In February 1989, 48 cars rolled backward down a mountain-grade track and crashed in Helena. The crash and chemical explosion forced the evacuation of 2,000 people in subfreezing weather and caused $6 million in damage.

The issue over rail safety is made more complicated by the threat of terrorism - a "very real concern" when it comes to hazardous material cargo, the U.S. Department of Transportation said in a 2003 report.

At the center is the tension between keeping hazardous material safe and secure on the railroad and giving local communities the information they need to respond if there's an accident. Generally, that means locals don't know what's been transported through town.

"You get absolutely no information," Dozier said. "If you get that out there, you're telling all the sickos what's on the trains."

In Yellowstone County, the movement of hazardous materials is a daily fact of life.

The county has nearly constant rail movement, 168 miles of track and more industrial chemical operations than anywhere else in Montana. The rail passes directly through urban areas and in many places runs next to or over the Yellowstone River.

For security and proprietary reasons, railroad companies won't divulge exactly what their cars are carrying at specific times and locations. But on any day, it's likely that tank cars are carrying chemicals necessary for modern life that, under the worst circumstances, could explode, burn skin, sear lungs, melt metal, kill people and damage the environment.

"The biggest thing that comes to mind (with railroads) is probably the quantities you're dealing with," said Jim Kraft, the county's director of emergency services. "The railroad comes right through the middle of town. If you have an accident in the middle of town, you're really hurting."

Two tank cars carrying liquefied petroleum gas derailed in downtown Billings in 1996, causing the evacuation of several blocks and more than a few nervous looks about the possibility of a leak and subsequent explosion.

The incident, though, was resolved without incident.

"That went flawlessly," said Tim Stavnes, training coordinator for the Billings Fire Department's hazardous materials team. "But the potential was there."


There are 60,000 identified hazardous materials - classified as anything from herbicides to paint thinner, explosives and nuclear waste - and, at any given time, 45,000 are in transport.

Each year, railroads carry about 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials, including 45,000 carloads of chlorine, a chemical used to purify more than half the nation's water supplies, according to industry officials.

By law and by necessity, those materials have to move around the country, said White, of the railroad industry group. The railroads have shown they can do it safely, he said. Between 1981 and 2004, there were 10 deaths related to hazardous materials moved by rail and 274 deaths involving those materials moved by truck, he said.

"The record's not quite perfect, but it's very close," White said.

In Montana, Burlington Northern-Sante Fe recorded one incident where a car released hazardous materials between 1994 and 2004, according to federal records. Montana Rail Link reported five incidents during that time.

But each time there's a wreck including the deadly one in South Carolina on Jan. 6 - there's a renewed interest in hazardous materials on the rails.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security in January demanding that local governments know in advance what hazardous materials will be shipped through town by railroads.

"The chemical train wreck in Graniteville, S.C. had the effect of the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction," the mayors said in the letter.

While railroad companies have taken steps to improve safety since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, police and fire departments have had to fight efforts to restrict information about what's being carried on the rails.

In August 2004, the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, in an effort to reduce the risk of terrorism, proposed removing the placards on the sides of rail cars that identify what kind of dangerous cargo is inside.

But firefighters and others said the diamond-shaped placards provide vital information about the chemicals they're dealing with in an emergency.

"The reason for placarding was when we had wrecks before, we were killing of lot of responding people," Stavnes said. "Those placards are out there for me."

Federal officials have recently withdrawn that proposal.

But other safety issues have been identified.

A federal report about a 2002 train wreck and chemical spill in Minot, N.D., said more than 35,000 pressurized tank cars in use were built before manufacturers started using stronger steel in 1989. Those cars pose an "unquantified but real risk to the public," the report said.

Whiteside said the pressurized cars are tougher than people might think.

"They're double-walled, virtually bulletproof. You can roll them down hills, all sorts of things," he said. "I still think railroads are one of the safest modes of transportation, next to pipelines, that we have."

While safety issues have taken hold nationally, local first responders say they feel secure in their ability to deal with a railroad incident.

"Our confidence level is good right now," Stavnes said. "We're getting the training and finally getting the equipment we need."


Part of that confidence comes from cooperation between agencies and local industries, including the refineries and other industrial plants. They share training, information and a common goal to avert disaster.

"We have great neighbors here," Stavnes said.

And although railroad companies won't notify the public in advance of hazardous material shipments, Burlington Northern-Sante Fe has provided emergency officials with software that gives up-to-the-minute information on what each train is carrying.

The railroad industry has also conducted risk assessments and implemented new security measures.

"Obviously safety is our No. 1 priority, but I can't discuss specifics," said Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman.

Lynda Frost, a spokeswoman for MRL, said the railroad has hazardous materials response teams, daily patrols of the tracks and close coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, local and state officials to ensure the safety and security of its operations.

"Montana and its communities are the homes of our employees and we take its safety very seriously," Frost said.

Local responders have also benefited from a national push to protect against bioterrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Riley, the Lockwood fire chief, said he and his crew have added exercises involving weapons of mass destruction and other terrorist-related issues to their training, too.

"I used to just worry about chemicals," said Riley, in his 16th year at Lockwood Fire. "Now I worry about everything."

While railroad safety may not be his top concern, he still spends plenty of time thinking about the dangers and what response might be needed.

"There can be up to 200 railroad cars down here," Riley said, driving through the rail yard at Lockwood. "Anymore, you just can't be complacent."

Monday, February 28, 2005


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