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Commentary: "These Chemicals Are So Deadly"


The U.S. government's inability to anticipate the September 11 attacks in 2001 amounted to a "failure of imagination," according to the committee that investigated the tragedy. Well, imagine this: Terrorists plant a bomb beneath a rail car carrying deadly chlorine gas. The bomb explodes near the National Mall in Washington on July 4, when 500,000 revelers are gathered for fireworks. Within 30 minutes as many as 100,000 could be dead or seriously injured, according to the U.S. Naval Research Lab.

At the moment, public concerns about key infrastructure are focused on the management of some operations at six U.S. ports, which may pass from a British company to the government of Dubai. But railroads could present just as tempting a target to terrorists, and in the years since September 11, little progress has been made toward protecting them. According to the American Association of Railroads, about 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials are transported on rail lines every year. The cars are easily identifiable, and the routes are hardly a secret. Even minor mistakes can be catastrophic. A derailment last year involving a chlorine car in Graniteville, S.C., killed nine people and put 75 in the hospital. "These chemicals are so deadly, and they are shipped through our urban areas in large quantities," says Richard A. Falkenrath, former deputy homeland security adviser to the President.

Yet the problems of safeguarding the transport of "hazmats" are not intractable. Here are some steps that would greatly ameliorate the risk:

PERMIT LIMITED REROUTING Last year city council members in Washington pushed through a measure forcing the railroad CSX Corp. (CSX) to divert shipments of hazardous materials that would otherwise run near the Capitol to less populated areas. CSX and the federal government are now fighting the ordinance in court. Some experts contend that the District of Columbia lacks authority to interfere with interstate commerce. That has not stopped Baltimore, Chicago, and Cleveland from proposing similar measures.

The railroads argue that changing the routes could significantly increase the amount of time hazardous cargo is on the tracks while sending the material out on less suitable and less safe rails. Theodore S. Glickman, a professor at George Washington University, says that in some cases rerouting may be safer, but that railroads resist because they might have to hand off cargo to competitors. The solution, says Glickman, is to engage a neutral body to rule on a case-by-case basis.

MASK THE CARGO Railcars with hazardous materials currently carry placards bearing easily visible identification numbers. Those numbers are a code for the material in the cars and are spelled out in widely published manuals to ensure that emergency responders know exactly what hazards they face. But the codes are equally available to would-be terrorists. The solution: Replace the placards with electronic tags that identify the contents of each car to police and first responders. "Right now it is too easy for the bad guys," says James R. Blaze, planning director with transportation consulting firm Zeta-Tech Associates Inc.

MONITOR THE HAZMATS Global positioning systems, electronic tagging, and other techniques can provide minute by minute information on the location and condition of each locomotive and car on the rails, says Steven R. Ditmeyer, a professor at the National Defense University. Some of this technology is in place already. But the railroads don't have tracking capability everywhere, and sometimes they can't access temperature or other information captured on sensors installed by companies that lease the cars. These systems need to be put in place so the location of all hazmats can be pinpointed at any time, and data between the railroads and shippers need to be integrated.

FIND AND USE CHEMICAL ALTERNATIVES The best way to cut down on risk is simply to ship fewer dangerous substances in the first place. Some water-treatment plants have begun substituting substances such as sodium hypochlorite for potentially lethal chlorine. Users of these materials must keep up the pressure on chemical companies to find substitutes while reducing their reliance on the most hazardous substances. In the end the best solution will be to eliminate the target, not just reroute it.

By Amy Barrett


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