As smoke rose above Rosedale homes hours after a CSX train derailed and exploded May 28, many residents wondered what exactly was burning.
Three of the railcars were transporting hazardous materials, and investigators believe it was sodium chlorate that exploded. Hazardous materials pass through American neighborhoods each day by train, and some advocates have been pushing for years to make it easier for people to know what those cars are carrying — and what effect they could have in a catastrophic accident.
"Citizens are being kept in the dark about what is coming through their communities," said Fred Millar, a consultant who has advocated for rail safety.
No federal laws require public disclosure of hazardous materials being carried by trains, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said. However, he said railroads will provide a list of their top 25 hazardous commodities to local government officials upon request, to help emergency responders with planning and training.
Right-to-know laws regarding hazardous materials explicitly exempt cargo carried by train, said Rick Hind, legislative director for the environmental organization Greenpeace.
He said chemical facilities must do their part by shifting to safer alternatives to reduce the risk of disaster. For example, in 2011, Clorox stopped using chlorine, ending the transport of chlorine gas in the company's U.S. supply chain.
Greenpeace is part of a coalition of more than 100 environmental, labor, health and public interest groups that's been pushing the White House to enforce standards under the Clean Air Act to require facilities to use the safest alternative.
In 2005, Washington passed the nation's first ban on trains carrying hazardous materials. The courts later blocked the district's law.
CSX spokesman Gary Sease said that "99.9 percent" of chemicals move safely by rail.
"For security reasons, we do not disclose chemical shipment information to the general public," Sease said in an email. "Under the interstate commerce laws, CSX and all common carriers are required to transport any commodity tendered to them in a safe container."
Sease said local officials can receive information in several ways. For example, first responders can request studies from CSX detailing "specific carload volumes of hazardous materials moved through a particular community," he said.
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the federal law that Greenpeace and other groups used to advocate for safe shipping.
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