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.
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.
"The fact is that most Americans are kept in ignorance about ... these things that are routinely routed though their cities," says Fred Millar, an expert on the transport of hazardous and toxic materials and a member of the local emergency planning committee in Washington.
Mr. Millar is an advocate of the proposal requiring hazardous shipments to be routed around the capital. The railroads oppose it, contending that mandatory rerouting would actually increase the risks of exposure by lengthening the distance that rail tank cars have to travel. In some cases, according to experts, to successfully reroute a rail car around Washington, a train might have to begin an alternative route as far away as Dallas.
The railroads also insist that since 9/11, security has been their top priority, and they are confident their shipments are properly protected. "We do a tremendous amount of work with the federal defense, intelligence, and security agencies and have a tremendous understanding and ability to deal with risks and threats that are out there," says Bob Sullivan, a CSX spokesman.
After the Madrid train bombings last March, the railroads and chemical industry reportedly began voluntarily rerouting hazardous materials around Washington. Officials will not comment, but several members of Congress who met with rail officials confirmed the setup. Still, it does not mollify some D.C. officials. "It is secret, and it is voluntary on the part of the railroad, so therefore it's temporary and unverifiable," says Millar.
The Department of Homeland Security also won't comment directly on the rerouting question, but it is reportedly hoping to spend more than $9 million to increase the security of rail tracks around Washington so such shipments can resume. "We are taking appropriate and effective risk mitigation steps, at the same time ensuring the free flow of commerce," says DHS spokesman Mark Hatfield.
That doesn't satisfy several Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts. He and others have called on the Department of Homeland Security to increase rail security around the country.
Yet some community leaders are concerned that spending money to try to "secure" miles of rail track will in itself be counterproductive. "It sends the wrong message that we're going to try to fortify our rail lines well enough to avoid even the slightest vulnerabilities," says Tacoma Park's Ms. Austin-Lane. "I just think it's unrealistic and not feasible."
Representatives of the nation's first responders would like to see the federal government step up funding for equipment and training to deal with hazardous materials - regardless of whether a crisis is the result of sabotage or an accident.
"Hopefully, never again will anybody fly a commercial airliner into a high-rise building, but this is the kind of incident that everybody is vulnerable to," says Eric Lamar, assistant to the president of the International Association of Firefighters in Washington. "These tend to be low-probability, high-impact incidents that require a very sophisticated emergency response."