Danger on the rails that run through Pittsburgh

Citizens should know when hazardous materials are in their midst

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The Post-Gazette editorial “Disaster by Rail: The U.S. Needs Better Rules for Trains Hauling Oil” (Jan. 26) commendably cited the recent National Transportation Safety Board recommendations that two federal agencies enforce the routing of hazardous-materials trains around populated or sensitive areas. The editors asked for the government to take strong action, and promptly.

Pittsburgh has more reason than many U.S. cities to demand transparency about whether the railroads already route their most dangerous cargoes in or near the city.

Eastern rail route maps published in the business press clearly show Pittsburgh right in the bowling alley for the ongoing CSX expansion of rail freight capacity linking Midwest cities with East Coast ports such as Baltimore, Norfolk and Wilmington. Crude oil transported on these routes eventually will terminate in the eastern oil refineries that now process North Dakota crude and are beginning to accept tar sands crude from northern Alberta.

Virtually no one in Pittsburgh even knows whether CSX and the other U.S. and Canadian railways that daily exchange cargoes with CSX have been protecting the city by re-routing dangerous materials. An astonishingly railroad-friendly 2007 federal law says railroads must analyze and select the “safest and most secure” routes but can keep the process and decisions secret. Pitifully weak federal oversight agencies agree not to “alarm the public.”

CSX recently announced to concerned citizens at Washington, D.C., public meetings that it has for some time been re-routing around the district the most dangerous classes of three cargoes capable of mass casualties: radioactives, toxic gases and explosives. CSX announced it will henceforth “voluntarily” also re-route crude oil and ethanol, which are newly appreciated as extremely dangerous by the railroad industry and federal agencies in the United States and Canada.

The Canadian government, in the wake of the July Lac-Megantic derailment disaster that killed 47, recently announced that the country’s railways now must tell woefully uninformed Canadians on an annual or quarterly basis which dangerous cargoes are being routed through their communities. Has anyone in Pittsburgh demanded that CSX reveal the top 25 most dangerous hazmat cargoes the company carries through Downtown?

In response to longstanding U.S. community demands for information on the annual volumes of the most dangerous hazardous materials shipped by rail, the Association of American Railroads, which includes both Canadian and American railways, has long published guidance to member railroads. The association advises that they should, upon request, provide annual volumes information on the 25 most dangerous cargoes to local emergency planning officials but with the proviso that the information not be shared with the public unless the railroad agrees to do so.

Citizens should ask hard questions regarding the preparedness of Pittsburgh emergency responders in case of a massive rail accident such as those that have been happening all over North America. The railroads have never been forced to share with local emergency responders, much less with the public, their own worst-case scenarios for these cargoes. In Congress, their lobbyists got chemical transporters exempted from the 1986 and 1990 national community right-to-know laws that force 13,000 U.S. chemical facilities to do so. We know from the horrific fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, that an uninformed community means dead firefighters.

Keeping railroad routing decisions secret because of alleged security concerns is utterly phony. Only at-risk citizens are kept in the dark. For example, the Chlorine Institute’s own website has for years uniquely and commendably featured Pamphlet 74, available for free download. It shows that the chlorine industry’s own calculations of the worst-case scenario for the sudden release of just one standard 90-ton chlorine tank car is a toxic gas cloud 4 miles wide spreading 15 miles downwind.

Information on the risks and routing of some ultrahazardous cargoes has long been available publicly. It’s time to make public information about all of them, including crude oil.

Congress also should impose a very fast retrofit of the current crude oil DOT-111 railcars, known by rail agencies for 20 years to be defective. As the NTSB recently said, in a derailment or collision multiple DOT-111s “should be expected to lose” their contents.

The railcar industry pleads for more time — 10 years — since its current 92,000-car fleet is so busy making money these days to carry the Northwest oil that is being pumped up much faster than expected.

Previous strong federal action on rail safety has required action from a Congress fed up with agency stalling. For instance, Congress recently forced the railroads to install positive train control collision-prevention technology after the weakened safety agencies failed to do so.

But local officials also should demand action. No one in Pittsburgh should have to learn the worst-case scenario of a dangerous cargo passing through their town by actually experiencing it, as the citizens of Lac-Megantic tragically did.

Fred Millar is an Arlington, Va.-based consultant on homeland security, hazardous materials transportation and chemical accident prevention whose clients include transportation unions, the District of Columbia City Council and national environmental groups.

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