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Rail cargo safety fight heats up

The Transportation Department has proposed regulations that require railroads to assess routes for shipping dangerous chemicals.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2008



New York

Every day, hundreds of rail tank cars carry tons of chemicals that, if released, could create toxic plumes. These tank cars traverse more than 300,000 miles of railroad tracks through major cities and small towns across America.

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While they represent only a small fraction of the rail cargo moved each year, homeland-security analysts have long warned that a terrorist attack on such a rail car could have catastrophic consequences.

Yet, since 9/11, Washington has not found a way to ensure the security of these moving chemical targets that satisfies homeland-security experts, environmentalists, and the chemical industry.

As a result of a congressional mandate, the Department of Transportation recently proposed a new set of regulations that would require railroads to assess the safest and most secure rail routes to ship such chemicals. The manufacturers would also be required to use better, reinforced tank cars.

But critics, some now even in the business community, say that Washington should be focusing on this question: Should these materials continue to be manufactured and shipped when safer alternatives are available?

"The fact that we have no recent history in America of a truly catastrophic chemical release leads to people to complacency," says Paul Orum, a consultant on chemical security to public-interest groups. "There are low-probability, high-consequence events, and it's hard for markets to place value on that, which is why [more effective] federal, nationwide regulation is needed."

At issue: toxic inhalants

The chemicals at the center of the debate are called toxic inhalants (TIH). The most common are chlorine gas, which is used to purify water, and anhydrous ammonia, which is a key component in many fertilizers. Shipments of these chemicals represent less than 1 percent of the rail cargo moved through the country. Still, that amounts to an estimated 100,000 tank cars going through major cities each year. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has called the transport of these chemicals "one of the most serious risks facing America's highest threat areas."

In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security implemented regulations that require trains carrying TIH chemicals to keep moving so they don't become easy, stationary targets. When they are stopped, they're required to be in a secure location. Their schedules are also intentionally kept random and secret. DHS is also working with the railroads on a system to track and identify the location of any one of these cars within three minutes.

Critics say these regulations still leave millions of Americans unnecessarily vulnerable to a deadly attack. That's because they do not mandate that railroads reroute TIH shipments around major urban areas.

"Any city that doesn't have an originating or receiving chemical shipment should not be exposed to these through-shipments. It's just that simple," says Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace.

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