Toxic freight re-routed through NY?
(The following article by Mark Weiner was posted on the Syracuse Post Standard website on May 21.)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Hazardous rail cargo that used to travel within four blocks of the U.S. Capitol may be traveling through Upstate New York and the Syracuse area due to a ban imposed by Washington, D.C.
Up to 11,000 rail cars per year carrying toxic chemicals and other hazardous cargo could be detoured, according to a national chemical security expert.
Some say it's happening now, but local and state officials don't know because those records are not public. Train companies are not talking about the detour, citing security reasons.
An executive with freight rail operator CSX Transportation said in court papers in 2005 that his company had to make a circuitous northern detour - through Central New York - because of Washington, D.C.'s anti-terrorism ban.
John M. Gibson Jr., a CSX vice president, said in a lawsuit challenging the ban that the railroad would have to detour an average of 13 trains per day carrying hazardous cargo.
In an affidavit, Gibson said that the "vast majority" of the trains would be rerouted through the Syracuse area.
He offered an example of what would happen to rail cargo heading from North Carolina to Delaware: "In order to avoid the District, this traffic must move through Erwin, Tenn.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Cleveland Ohio; Buffalo; Syracuse; Oak Island, N.J.; Philadelphia; Stoney Creek, Pa.; and then to Claymont, Del."
He said the length of the trip would more than double, from 754 miles to 1,655 miles.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia returned the issue to a lower court in May 2005, with the appellate judges suggesting there was a high likelihood that CSX would win its argument that the ban is unconstitutional.
Until the case is resolved, CSX Transportation has voluntarily stopped shipping hazardous freight on a rail line that comes closest to the Capitol.
Robert Sullivan, a company spokesman in Philadelphia, declined to say where those rail cars have been diverted.
"We don't speak publicly about routing as a matter of safety and security," Sullivan said.
Others familiar with the rail company's plans say there is little doubt the extra cargo is passing through Upstate New York and the major CSX rail yards in the Syracuse area.
"CSX said in court they would have to use their next available line. I don't think it could be any clearer," said Fred Millar, a chemical security consultant from Arlington, Va., who helped write the Washington, D.C., ordinance.
Millar maintains that train cars carrying chlorine, anhydrous ammonia and other chemicals that are toxic when inhaled can be turned into weapons of mass destruction by terrorists.
If a chlorine tanker was blown up, it would send a toxic cloud over a 15-mile radius that could kill thousands, Millar said.
"People in Syracuse should be asking themselves a basic question: Do we have weapons of mass destruction cargo coming through Syracuse?" Millar said. "I'm ashamed to say most of the people who know about this, including the industry and fire chiefs, are averting their eyes to this."
Joe Rinefierd, fire bureau director for the Onondaga County Department of Emergency Management, said local emergency teams are well-prepared to handle any accident on the rails.
Rinefierd said CSX hinted during an October 2004 rail-accident drill at the local CSX yards, in Minoa, that local traffic in hazardous cargo may increase.
"At that time they told us there was a good possibility this might happen," Rinefierd said. "I don't know if it means a whole lot to us because the amount of freight traffic through here right now is huge. We're a major spoke in their system."
CSX helps local firefighters and hazardous materials teams train for rail accidents, Rinefierd said. Emergency responders are taught to look for symbols on tanker cars that indicate hazards. One, for example, is a skull and crossbones. Also listed are initials and numbers indicating the specific material and the type of hazard it presents (such as toxic by inhalation).
In one case, the company taught classes to local hazardous materials teams and provided rail cars for practice, he said.
"As a partner in emergency services they've always been there," Rinefierd said of CSX.
"Nobody has called us to say these rail cars are coming through here," he said. "But we get along really well with CSX."
Syracuse Deputy Fire Chief Ed Kurtz said he would like to know how much extra hazardous freight is moving through the region's railways.
"We would like to be aware," Kurtz said. "But we also realize there will be a certain amount of product moving through here that they will not announce."
Kurtz said the city keeps a trained hazardous materials team of eight people on duty around the clock. The staff trains with CSX and has access to a computer program that projects the direction of hazardous spills and vapors.
Syracuse and Onondaga County hazardous materials teams also assist volunteer fire departments in rural areas if the need arises.
"We're always aware that there could be hazardous products moving through our community at any time," Kurtz said.
With increased concerns since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, other communities are less comfortable having such cargo move through their urban centers.
Since Washington, D.C., passed its ordinance, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia have considered similar bans of hazardous rail traffic.
The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, opposes such laws.
"Rerouting is not the solution," said Peggy Wilhide, the association's vice president for communications. "All you're doing with rerouting is transferring the risk from one community to another. Then you get into the debate of whether one community is more important than another."
Wilhide said railroads are required by federal law to carry hazardous chemicals, and most experts agree the rails are safer than the highway.
Nationally, railroads transport 1.8 million cars per year of hazardous materials. About 200,000 cars per year carry chemicals that pose the most serious threat to human health cargo that is toxic by inhalation, Wilhide said. Those chemicals include chlorine and anhydrous ammonia.
The last major freight accident in Central New York occurred in November, when 28 train cars derailed in Central Square, Oswego County. Six of the cars contained chemicals.
In that accident, a train car leaked corrosive sodium hydroxide. Other rail cars carrying chlorine left the tracks. Although the chlorine did not leak, officials canceled classes in the Central Square school district as a precaution.
In January 2005, nine people died after inhaling chlorine gas released in a South Carolina train crash.
Millar, the chemical security expert, said the industry's accident record is not the issue.
"I think it's a distraction to talk about accidents because the numbers are low enough that public officials are willing to have this cargo move through their communities," Millar said. "The real issue here is the terrorism threat.
"The whole railroad industry is being irresponsibly reckless about this. None of them (has) a policy to avoid target cities with their most dangerous cargo."
As for the detour around Washington, D.C., CSX could take a shorter route north of the city using tracks owned by competitor Norfolk Southern, Millar said.
Railroads typically negotiate such trackage rights deals on a case-by-case basis. But Norfolk Southern says it has not been approached.
"I am not aware there have ever been discussions with CSX about alternative routing," said Robin Chapman, a Norfolk Southern spokesman in Norfolk, Va.
Sullivan, the CSX spokesman, declined to discuss the issue of using competitors' tracks.
He said the Washington, D.C., ban simply places his company in a no-win situation.
"When we went to court, we said we've got this federal obligation as a common carrier to move material as safely and efficiently as we can," Sullivan said. "And then we've got the local law in Washington, D.C., that would essentially contradict that."
He added, "It puts us in a position where, in effect, no matter what direction we go, we violate a law."
Monday, May 22, 2006
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