Emergencies hot line in chemical transport

7:46 a.m. in the nation's capital. . . . The "hot line" telephone rings.m Ramon Chezem quickly answers. "This is CHEMTREC. Do you have an emergency regarding chemicals?"m

The caller says yes. A railroad tank car has derailed down an embankment near Fairless Hills, Pa. How, the caller asks, can we get the car, containing spent hydrochloric acid, back on the tracks.m

Mr. Chezem, an ex-career military man, says that he will automatically contact the shipper to aid crane operators restoring the tanker.m

The US chemical industry, facing increasing shipments of often highly dangerous industrial and consumer products, is taking careful aim against transportation-related emergencies.

The industry program, under the direction of CHEMTREC (Chemical Transportation Emergency Center), now is being looked upon by some government officials as perhaps a model of exactly how private industry, working in conjunction with the federal government, can help mitigate or forestall the often tragic effects of industry-related accidents.

Whether the industry program begun here in 1971 is enough, given constantly increasing shipments of chemical products, is another question.Currently, the US Department of Transportation is working on a new set of regulations that, according to a spokesman, will provide new directions for local officials dealing with hazardous accidents involving hazardous materials. Neither the Department of Transportation (DOT) nor any other federal agency provide a similar national program involving chemical accidents, although a US Coast Guard emergency program often deals in part with nonmaritime and chemical accidents.

Still, says the DOT spokesman, "They [the industry officials working with CHEMTREC] do a good job. They have a basically limited function . . . not directly going to the scene of the accident itself." But what they do, he says, they do well.

What CHEMTREC does, explains John Zercher, the center's outgoing director, is to provide an around-the-clock emergency service. In the center's downtown Washington offices a WATTS line and extensive files on thousands of brand-name and chemical-named substances enable the center's staff to quickly contact shippers, suppliers, law-enforcement groups, hospitals, and other appropriate agencies with precise data on how to deal with a chemical-related accident.

CHEMTREC is solely funded by the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the main industry trade group. Eight people work on a full-time basis and overall operating costs run between $600,000 and $700,000 annually, says Mr. Zercher.

Throughout the US, some 4 billion tons of hazardous chemicals are transported yearly. Only a small portion is ever involved in an accident.

Mr. Zercher notes that emergency calls -- and accidents -- tend to peak in the summer months of July and August. In part, he believes, that may be because large amounts of pesticide products for farmers are shipped at that time.

Since 1971 CHEMTREC has handled more than 104,000 incidents dealing with chemical products. In most cases, no accident was involved. When that occurs, CHEMTREC politely declines the call, referring the caller to an appropriate local agency if possible.

Because of the seriousness of the hot line, all telephone operators (except for one woman) are ex-military personnel selected for their ability to remain collected during an emergency.

In the case of the derailment at Fairless Hills, for example, Mr. Chezem, the hot line operator, was able to conclude all necessary inquiries and contact the shipper within a few minutes.

In case of a severe incident, CHEMTREC will routinely contact the DOT, the Defense Department, or another federal agency.

Mr. Zercher points out that merely collecting detailed information on thousands of chemical products has been a major task. For that reason the center has tended to limit its overall role as much as possible. Still, he says , center officials are planning a move to larger quarters later this year.

The important thing, he says, is that in case of "chemical emergency," CHEMTREC will be there.

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