Why railroad safety debate keeps rolling
A deadly chlorine leak has added momentum to local efforts to curb chemical hazards.
The recent train crash and chlorine leak in Graniteville, S.C., which killed nine people and injured at least 250, is raising renewed concerns about the safety of hazardous-materials rail shipments in communities across the country.Skip to next paragraph
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In Tacoma Park, Md., Joy Austin-Lane is determined to make sure such a disaster, sparked either by another accident or terrorists, doesn't occur on her watch. The city councilwoman is working with nearby towns to try to draft a regulation that would reroute rail cars carrying lethal chemicals around their communities, unless they're going to be used within them.
Washington, D.C., is considering a similar proposal for the second time. Last fall, a rerouting regulation failed by a slim margin. And a bill under consideration in Congress would mandate tougher security for such chemicals and require companies to switch to less hazardous materials when possible.
For the community activists supporting these measures, they're a simple way to prevent a horrific tragedy by taking tankers that could easily be turned into weapons of mass destruction away from population centers.
But representatives of the rail and chemical industries, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, contend that such initiatives are counterproductive, creating a security patchwork that may ultimately be less secure. They insist there's a 24-hour effort to ensure these rail cars are safe.
The clash of concerns highlights the challenges of coping with such hazardous materials in an age where the once unthinkable - from a deadly terrorist attack like 9/11 to the devastating tsunami - is now part of a regular public dialogue. The concerns of individual communities are sometimes pitted against the larger goal of protecting the nation. And citizens' demands for certainty run up against the government's desire for secrecy in its ongoing effort to prevent another terrorist attack.
"Anytime you're dealing with a combination of technology and public policy, there's a trade-off of benefits, disadvantages, and costs," says Dr. Neal Langerman, former chairman of the division of chemical health and safety of the American Chemical Society in San Diego.
Hazardous chemicals like chlorine are routinely used in communities across the country for a variety of things, from purifying water to manufacturing plastics. They're shipped across the nation's 142,000 miles of rails, sometimes passing through major urban areas and close to key facilities, like the Capitol in Washington, the Federal Building in Atlanta, and the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago. Still, the consensus is that rail remains the safest method available to transport such materials.
The railroad CSX estimates that in 2003, there were 513,000 rail shipments of hazardous materials and only seven releases of dangerous gases. The freight-rail industry notes that hazardous shipments in particular are often routed though the best maintained tracks on the most direct routes.
At the same time, however, serious concerns remain. Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board found that more than half of the 60,000 rail tank cars used to transport hazardous materials are not built according to current standards and are susceptible to rupture in the case of an accident. Add to that heightened concerns about terrorism, and many activists argue that much more needs to be done.