Saturday, January 08, 2005

"The uninterrupted flow of hazardous materials is necessary for the health and safety of the U.S"

Following up on yesterday's post about the ">South Carolina chemical train accident that killed eight, mostly due to exposure to chorine fumes (and particularly the chilling photo at the end), I ran across this article that a friend sent me a few months ago.
The vulnerability of chlorine shipments through the capital has become a hot topic since the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. Activists say the availability of high-powered rifles and other weapons and the accessibility of urban rail lines make shipping highly toxic materials through cities such as Washington a bad idea.

In an oft-cited presentation to the District of Columbia Council, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory scientist Jay Boris said the rupture of a rail tanker carrying a toxic chemical in central Washington could quickly cause mass death.

In a "worst-case scenario" involving a stiff breeze, a large holiday crowd on the National Mall and "the absence of an early warning and concerted action," Boris said, "Over 100,000 people could be seriously harmed or even killed in the first half an hour."
Turns out we don't really have to worry about such an eventuality. Why not? Could it be that the Department of Homeland Security or maybe the Transportation Department decided to reroute hazardous cargo around large cities like Washington D.C., instead of right through the middle?

Of course not. The rail companies oppose it. Instead, the administration is developing a voluntary program with the industry. After all, as Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger testified at a hearing last May (presumably with a straight face,) "The uninterrupted flow of hazardous materials is necessary for the health and safety of the U.S., as well as its economic growth." Yeah, I'm sure we'd all agree with that. (Well, maybe not the families and friends of the 8 people killed in Graniteville earlier this week, or the two killed by chlorine last year in Texas after a rail accident released chlorine gas.)

This is all very interesting on a number of levels.

  • It took 9/11 to raise to the front pages the hazards involved in transporting highly hazardous chemicals through highly populated areas, even though the hazard has existed for many decades.

  • We've never a chemical-related fatality from terrorism, although we've had a number of fatalities due to just plain chemical "accidents."

  • We've invaded two countries, killed tens of thousands of people, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars to get tough on terrorism; we force little old ladies to remove their shoes at the airport and then feel them up pat them down; we keep terrorism "suspects" in prison indefinitely despite the fact (or because) we don't have enough evidence to charge them with a crime -- but meanwhile, here at home, we relax government oversight of the railroads and rely on voluntary standards to protect ourselves from terrorism and very real accidents that are killing innocent people.
I mean, we wouldn't want to piss off any big contributors or anything.

So, am I missing something here, or are we living in a crazy screwed up world?

With January 20th less than two weeks away, I guess the answer is obvious.