City out to learn what's in CSX cars

The Baltimore Sun

The derailment of a CSX freight train carrying hazardous materials through Baltimore has again pushed to the forefront concerns about whether city officials know what dangerous cargo is passing through each day.

Though last weekend's accident, in which 12 train cars fell off the tracks near M&T; Bank Stadium, left no injuries or leaks, city officials say they intend to press CSX Transportation Inc. for real-time information on what chemicals are coming in and out of Baltimore - information to which the city does not now have regular access.

Mayor Sheila Dixon held a security Cabinet meeting yesterday with police, fire, health and transportation representatives to discuss requesting such information immediately.

Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said a call was made to CSX yesterday and that he hopes to have access to such information within a week. "This could really be a simple thing that CSX could do in 72 hours and look heroic," Goodwin said.

"You have 70,000 in the stadium at the Army-Navy game this weekend. ... You're looking at a large potential there for something to go wrong," Goodwin said.

Baltimore is the only location in the country, Goodwin noted, where hazardous materials run just 35 feet from a large-volume football stadium and near a baseball stadium. "This is an area that serves the whole Northeast corridor, and we just want some real-time operational assets," he said.

The issue of rail safety and hazardous materials first drew public scrutiny in Baltimore after a weeklong fire beneath the city's downtown in July 2001. Fire erupted on a CSX train carrying hazardous materials through the Howard Street Tunnel, forcing evacuations in the city and paralyzing freight traffic along the East Coast.

More than six years later, CSX officials say Baltimore is slated to participate in a one-year pilot program that would give city officials access to up-to-date information, likely sometime next summer.

But city officials want it sooner.

Andrew Lauland, who was homeland security adviser to former Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the administration worked from July 2001 until O'Malley left office this year to gain access to real-time information but it never came.

"If UPS knows where a package of cookies you shipped to your grandmother is, clearly a major rail carrier should know where a 1-ton cylinder of chlorine is," said Lauland, who is now Governor O'Malley's homeland security adviser.

Goodwin said the infrastructure is already in place through the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, a 24-hour FBI watch center that investigates potential terrorist and criminal events that could lead to a large-scale catastrophe.

New York, New Jersey and Kentucky are currently participating in the pilot program, said Bob Sullivan, a spokesman for CSX.

Sullivan said Baltimore officials currently receive a historical record of what went through the city during the preceding year, as well as real-time information if and when they call and request it.

Lauland said the railroads are worried that sensitive information about hazardous materials could fall into the wrong hands, but he said that is not a reasonable excuse. "My belief is that all of these problems are eminently solvable and need to be solved for public safety," he said.

The results of a hazardous spill were even more pronounced in 2005 when a freight train struck a car on the tracks in Graniteville, S.C., causing a rupture in a tanker carrying liquid chlorine. The release caused a poisonous chlorine cloud; nine people were killed and 250 fell ill.

"And that was nowhere near as bad as it could have been," said Paul Orum, a Washington-based consultant on chemical safety issues, noting the rural location of Graniteville. "In a densely populated area such as Baltimore, one can envision a much worse result."

The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating the cause of Saturday's accident, which occurred about 8 a.m. when 12 train cars headed for North Carolina derailed beneath the Ostend Street bridge. Three of the cars contained hazardous materials.

Freight traffic resumed Sunday, and MARC trains were running yesterday.

Steve Kulm, the federal agency's spokesman, said a number of plans are under way to improve freight traffic, including looking at routes used to transport hazardous materials.

The agency is also in the initial stages of putting together new hazardous material tank car design standards. "Certainly hazmat tank cars have a good record now, but we're looking at making them even more safe," said Kulm.

Peggy Nasir, vice president of communications for the Association of American Railroads, said 99.97 percent of all hazardous material cars arrive at their destinations safely. Also, 99.1 percent of accidents result in no release of chemicals, she said.

"We have a very good safety record, but we believe the best way to eliminate the risk entirely is to look toward using different types of chemicals that aren't as hazardous or different types of technologies," Nasir said.

Since 2001, a number of facilities that use chlorine, such as water treatment plants, have switched to safer chemicals that are not delivered by rail. In Baltimore, the Back River Wastewater Treatment Facility switched from chlorine gas to liquid bleach in 2004. The Ashburton Filtration Plant made the same change.

But there is no federal law requiring plants to use safer alternatives when they're available, and many plants still use chlorine gas. So while Baltimore facilities no longer use chlorine, it could still be transported through the city to plants elsewhere.

Some cities have tried to force railroads to reroute trains carrying toxic chemicals, with mixed success. CSX now voluntarily reroutes such trains off a rail line that goes within a few blocks of the Capitol in Washington.

"But I don't know if they consider what is good enough for Washington, D.C., to be good enough for Baltimore as well," Orum said. Several rerouting cases are now in court.

A Baltimore City Council proposal to prohibit shipping hazardous materials through the city never made it out of committee.

Orum said 3/10ths of 1 percent of all rail shipments contain the most hazardous substances, which include chlorine gas, anhydrous sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid and anhydrous ammonia. That category does not include flammable materials such as propane.

Orum said notification is important, so first responders know what they're dealing with and how to approach it. But some substances are so toxic that there would be little a fire department could do.

"In a worst-case release of an extremely hazardous toxic gas - in which a dense ground-hugging plume of toxic gas travels slowly many miles downwind - there practically would be no effective emergency response," he said. "That leads one to certain conclusions, such as that wherever it's feasible to use safe alternatives, it's a good idea to get those [toxic] shipments off the rails."

The House of Representatives passed a bill last month that would require railroads to provide information to local jurisdictions on hazardous materials traveling through tunnels. The Senate version has cleared a transportation committee and is waiting for a full vote.

Lawrence C. Mann, a Washington attorney who handles rail safety for workers, said that in recent years railroad accidents and injuries have not improved.

As fleets age, rusting and problems with welding and valves can cause problems. "Most of the freight cars today carry some form of hazardous materials," Mann said.

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