Sunday, January 09, 2005

As If That Wasn't Bad Enough...More on Rail Safety

New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich who has been following the safety problems of the rail industry and weakened oversight by the Bush administration is giving us even more to worry about in the wake of the South Carolina rail accident and chlorine leak that has killed eight nine (or more?).

First, more than half of the nation's 60,000 pressurized rail tank cars did not meet industry standards:

Just how ruptured tank cars can endanger a community was underscored three years ago when a Canadian Pacific Railway freight train derailed just outside Minot, N.D. Five tank cars carrying a liquefied type of ammonia gas broke open, releasing toxic fumes that killed one resident and injured more than 300.

The National Transportation Safety Board, in a report on the accident released last year, said the steel shells on the five ruptured tank cars had become brittle, causing a "catastrophic fracture" that released clouds of toxic vapors. Those cars, the safety board found, were built before 1989 using steel that did not - as it does now - undergo a special heat treatment to make it stronger and less brittle. Tank cars built after 1989 use this specially treated steel.


The safety board warned that of the 60,000 pressurized tank cars in operation, more than half were older cars that were not built according to current industry standards, leaving them susceptible to rupture. And because these cars may remain in service for up to 50 years, some older ones could still be hauling hazardous materials until 2039.

Among the hazardous materials carried by the tank cars are liquefied ammonia, chlorine, propane and vinyl chloride. In most cases, the cars are owned by chemical or leasing companies, not the railroads.

And if that wasn't reassuring, it seems that more than three years after 9/11, the security of rail cars carrying highly hazardous chemicals is not much better than the security of chemical plants:

Federal authorities have been working with railroads and the chemical industry to improve security for trains. But there is still much to be done, particularly given the structural weaknesses of many tank cars, current and former federal officials say. George Gavalla, a former associate administrator for safety at the Federal Railroad Administration, said railroads had promised to beef up security when there was a credible terrorist threat.

So when such a threat arose a year ago in Las Vegas, Mr. Gavalla said, he sent an inspector there on New Year's Eve to assess the security measures in place. Those measures, he said, were virtually nonexistent.

When the inspector visited a rail yard 13 miles from the airport, he found no one watching over six tank cars with markings indicating that they might contain chlorine gas, according to a memorandum that he wrote about his visit. Two hours later, he visited another rail yard with four tank cars possibly carrying poisonous gas and they, too, were unguarded, the memorandum stated.

Finally, if all that's not bad enough, John Lowe over at Impact Analysis reveals that a request for comments on "the need for enhanced security requirements for the rail transportation of hazardous materials that pose a toxic inhalation hazard (TIH)," presented by the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security last summer states that the agencies are considering whether to require the removal from rail tank cars used to transport TIH materials of identifying marks, names, stenciling, placards, or other markings that could help a terrorist or criminal identify a target.

Great idea, if you want every emergency responder in America to resign. The key to addressing hazardous materials accidents safely -- to protecting the lives of the emergency responders and the surrounding community -- is swift and accurate identification (preferably from a distance) of the material that has been released. Nothing would undermine the safety of the American people more than hiding the identify of the contents of the fleets of trucks and railcars carrying hazardous materials through our towns and cities every day.

Can the safety of rail cars be improved? Who's going to make sure its done and that it's effective. Is it really possible to have safe transport of highly hazardous substances? The best solution is, of course, right under our noses:
Rick Hind, a toxics specialist at Greenpeace, the environmental group, said that the best answer would be for industrial plants to substitute less toxic substances for chlorine and other hazardous materials.

Safer technologies have emerged in some areas, Mr. Hind said, and switching to them would reduce the sense that the plants and trains are "a target-rich environment."