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.
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.
Critics note that DHS came up with its regulations after the local government in Washington, D.C., passed a requirement that all such shipments be rerouted around the capital. As many as 10 other major cities considered similar legislation. But the railroads and the Bush administration are opposed to any law that would mandate rerouting, and they've sued to overturn Washington's measure. The dispute is currently in the courts.
In the meantime, the rail freight company CSX says it is voluntarily rerouting TIH chemicals at least away from the rail line that passes right next to the National Mall and the Capitol building. But such shipments continue to travel through other parts of Washington and major cities like Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.
The railroads say that it would be logistically difficult and expensive for them to reroute shipments around major cities. They also say that despite the security benefits, rerouting could create safety hazards.
"These rules were carefully constructed to balance safety and security," says Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. "If you don't also consider safety, you could end up sending some of these materials on routes that are totally inappropriate: Perhaps they have steep grades or [travel] a light-density line that doesn't have the same quality track."
Environmentalists contend that rerouting is easier than the railroads portray, noting that rail lines routinely swap cargo and share lines. They also argue that the extra cost and effort are worth it, considering the risks posed by rail cars carrying TIH.
One idea: don't transport them at all
The railroads, for their part, are extremely cognizant of the risk posed by the chemicals. In fact, Mr. White says, many would choose not to transport them at all, but they are mandated to by law.
Earlier this year, in a move that stunned the chemical industry, the railroads came out in favor a law long championed by the environmental community. It would require chemical companies and industry to look for safer alternatives to ingredients like chlorine gas and anhydrous ammonia whenever possible.
"The only way you can have total safety and security on these things is by eliminating them altogether," White says. "We're the ones at risk here when we're moving this stuff."
The American Chemistry Council is quick to note that its own members developed the idea of safer alternatives – known as "inherently safer technologies" (IST) – long before 9/11. But they are opposed to any kind of a mandate: They say it should be left to individual companies – in part, because many companies are already in the process of assessing their operations to look for safer alternatives.
"There's a lack of understanding of the complexity of the issue," says Scott Jensen, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, in Arlington, Va. "There isn't one simple approach that will make us all more safe and secure."