Toxins often vulnerable during transit
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Source: Pittsburgh Live
Note that the ATSDR found that much needs to be done to decrease the risks at chemical plants (this report was taken offline after 911 yet it provides no specific information on any chemical facilities that could aid would-be terrorists), that EPA is cutting back on enforcement and that Congress may Eliminate the Chemical Safety Board.
Lax security exposes lethal chemical supplies.
Regulators, industry try to seal disaster plans.
Bill would help neighbors breathe easier.
Toxins often vulnerable during transit
By Carl Prine
Sunday, April 7, 2002
Toxic and explosive chemicals flow unseen and unreported under roads, rivers, rails and runways. Every day, millions of pounds of poisons end up parked by western Pennsylvania's schools and churches or moored alongside marinas — and most people don't even know.
Just ask the neighbors in Newell. There, just outside Fayette County's Nitrochem plant, boys walking home from Frazier Elementary School slapped at mammoth railcars filled with sulfuric, nitric and other corrosive acids.
"I don't know what they are," said Tristan Bartolomucci, 12, gazing up at the cars. "Are they dangerous?"
Mixing the acids creates nitroglycerin, a liquid explosive 60 times more powerful than dynamite. When interviewed, mothers pushing strollers through Newell had no clue what was in the tankers.
That's why hazardous material experts say that even more tempting a terrorist target than tanks inside chemical plants is the tanks outside on wheels.
"If they go inside the plant, they're pretty stupid terrorists," said C.B. "Buzz" Melton, a former Baltimore fire battalion chief and chemist who's now a consultant to the chemical industry. "Why should they do that when there's usually a rail yard across the street with more chemicals than in a dozen plants?"
In a two-month odyssey among the region's trains, trucks and tugs, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review discovered:
Thousands of rail cars loaded with hazardous chemicals parked in populated areas, near houses, retirement homes, schools and day care centers. Federal law permits them to park for up to two days in most cases.
Semitrailer trucks loaded with toxins and explosives idling unattended at truck stops, rest areas and bars. Chemical placards on the trucks included those for nitrous oxide, hydrogen chloride and petroleum gas — all dangerous compounds if released. The U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as chemical and trucking industry groups, urge drivers to turn off and lock their semis while eating, showering or sleeping.
Federal laws with loopholes big enough to drive a train through. Because the plants don't own the tracks, and the railroads don't own the cars, no one is ultimately responsible for track security. This gap creates easy access to industrial sites, including U.S. Steel's Clairton Works, Forward Township's Volpak warehouse and Brackenridge's Allegheny Ludlum mill.
Tunnel restrictions that save motorists but put neighborhoods at risk. Because truckers can't drive chemical shipments through tunnels on highways and turnpikes built for bulk, deliveries are diverted through highly populated neighborhoods such as Squirrel Hill.
On Oct. 7, when the war in Afghanistan began, the rail industry feared a terrorist attack so much that it declared a three-day moratorium on shipping dangerous chemicals. But the shipments couldn't stop forever — chemicals are the lifeblood of a modern industrial economy.
Each day, the liquids and gases that fuel the nation's manufacturing flow through 2.1 million miles of pipelines. Forty thousand truck, rail and nautical firms deliver 800,000 to 1.2 million loads of hazardous materials on more than 200,000 miles of track, highways and inland waterways. Two-thirds of the deliveries, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, pose a security risk.
"That's sobering, don't you think?" said Ellen Engleman, the agency's new administrator for research and special programs and a Naval officer. "We want a free society. If we restrict the most basic elements of freedom, including the freedom to travel, then the bad guys win. We must keep the country running."
Covered with graffiti, the region's rail cars pay tribute to past federal policies that didn't quite work and business innovations that worsened the problem.
Since the mid-1980s, large chemical makers and users have faced stiff penalties for failing to report the variety and volume of toxins kept on-site. Rather than share this information with the government, competitors and the public, many firms slashed inventories to get under the reporting thresholds.
A business renaissance of "just in time" delivery let companies get their chemicals every day. As long as the plants keep the chemicals off their property until needed, they don't have to report them or pay fees to local rescue crews and federal regulators. That's why near most major chemical sites is a train spur filled with unguarded cars, a dockyard with unmanned barges or a fleet of idling semitrailer trucks.
"They're literally storing the chemicals in the transportation system," said Bob Full, Allegheny County's emergency management director. "Instead of having the bulk storage facilities at their plants and getting one rail car a week, they're getting 10 rail cars a week and have just enough product on hand for two days.
"It's pretty spooky out there, whenever you take a look at it. You have five major modes of transportation. In Allegheny County, you have every single one of them in abundance: the waterways, highways, railroads, the international airport with all that traffic, then a tremendous number of pipelines under us."
Federal researchers identified Full's concerns in 1999. A report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the Centers for Disease Control concluded that "security around chemical transportation assets ranged from poor to nonexistent."
Railroad insiders don't dispute the findings but insist they've improved security. Federal law forces rail lines to haul hazardous chemicals. So far, train owners have borne the costs of increased security, and they own less than 1 percent of all tanker cars on the tracks.
"The railroads are paying a hell of a lot more attention to security since Sept. 11, and that's probably a permanent state from now on," said Mike White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. The group represents more than 90 percent of all North American rail traffic.
"This is the big question: Would you rather put hazardous chemicals on trucks, where the danger is much greater? Or would you rather put the hazardous chemicals on fixed rail lines, where it's impossible to steal a car and take it off the line? You can easily divert a truck. It's not so easy to divert a train."
For businesses served by rail lines, however, the larger concern is what to do with the unguarded tracks into their plants. At Forward Township's Volpak warehouse, tanker cars holding tens of thousands of pounds of lethal chemicals along a working track that bisects the plant sat vulnerable.
"We've been struggling with a way to aggressively secure the plant without inhibiting rail traffic," said Cliff Moll, the plant supervisor. "We have worked with local authorities. We have tried to make changes, like 24-hour guards, but there is always the geography.
"We have a challenging facility."
City and county emergency planners don't have the staff or computer power to track thousands of daily deliveries. Only a fraction of railcars have the technology to signal a diversion or rupture.
Tracking trains is instead left to human beings — railroad employees, state inspectors and the 400 safety and security agents tasked by the Federal Railroad Administration agents with overseeing chemical shipments nationwide. That's about one inspector for every 500 miles of track — about the distance from here to the White House and back.
"How can you control every mile of railroad in America? You can't," said Dean Blauser, a hazardous materials specialist from HazCom Solutions in Michigan. "And the containers, the railcars, they're not owned by CSX or any other carrier in the industry. They're owned by the companies that manufacture the chemicals. And they're going to somebody else.
"So it's a tough question about who is ultimately responsible for the chemicals. In a sense, everyone is responsible, but no one is completely responsible."
Carl Prine can be reached at [email protected] or (412) 320-7826.
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