Friday, September 01, 2006

The Threat from Toxic Chemicals and Deteriorating Railways

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

Last night, ABC News ran a report on the very real threat of toxic chemical spills from railway transportation. And frankly, it is amazing that this has gotten such little attention, especially in this "post 9/11" world where, so I've been told millions of times, evil lib'ruls like me are just inviting terrorists to wreak havoc around every corner here in good old `Murka.


The report highlighted the aftermath of how a SC town is dealing with a toxic chemical spill from a train wreck nearly 2 years ago left 9 people dead, over 500 more injured and the town pretty much ruined. However, there are 170,000 miles of railway in the US, with 83 million tons of hazardous materials shipped via railway each year in nearly 2 million carloads. Over 40% of the nations tracks are in what's called a "dark area", which has no lights and no warning system in place.


And guess how much the Bush administration cares about railway safety? Well, three times as much money is spent EACH DAY in Iraq as was allocated for all of 2005 for train security.


I know this isn't the sexiest of topics to be diaring about, but the fact is that this ties right into the truth how weak the republicans are when it comes to national security, not to mention the fact that a new poll shows that 60% of Americans think that the illegal and immoral occupation of Iraq is making terrorism more likely.


Back in 2003, the GAO issued a report that indicated while strides are being made with respect to railway safety, there still is a long way to go in order to create and maintain a long term security plan. Of course, not enough has been done to make the situation better. According to the ABC News report:

Every year there are 1.7 million carloads carrying some of the deadliest chemical agents known to man, crisscrossing the nation--- a number that's rising.


---snip---


Last year alone, there were 846 accidents involving trains carrying deadly chemicals -- a number that's gone up over the last four years.


Thirty-six of those accidents involved the release of toxic chemicals into the air.


A number that has gone up over the last four years. Gee, I wonder what that coincides with....


In describing the 2005 derailment in South Carolina (I don't want to focus too much on it, but there are good articles here and here), where 120,000 pounds of chlorine was released into the air, I'll give you the following blurb:

They remember suddenly hearing a screeching, thunderous explosion of crunching metal. Two trains had crashed, leaving 16 cars derailed.


One car had a punctured tank of poisonous gas.


Adams remembers smelling smoke and immediately calling 911.


"I thought [the train] was gonna come through the wall behind me," she said.


Witnesses described a rolling yellow-green blanket of poison invading the town like something out of a science fiction movie.


"I thought my eyelashes had come off. If I breathed too deeply, it burned like, I guess, like drinking gas," said Adams, who was trapped in her building at the time.


Calls poured into 911 from the nearby plant and from houses, with people complaining of everything from "We can't breathe" to "He's got blood coming out of his eyes."


The accident was caused by a railroad switch that was left in the wrong position. This was the responsibility of Norfolk Southern, who happened to be responsible for over 100 accidents resulting from switches being in the wrong position over the past 4 years. And guess what else about Norfolk Southern? Well, since 2000, they have donated nearly $1.5 million to Republicans (nearly 70% of total donations).


Now, there was legislation passed in Washington DC which would have diverted railroad transportation of hazardous materials around (as opposed to through) the city, thereby avoiding passing right near the Capitol, the Supreme Court and however many other national landmarks (which probably weren't counted when it came to doling out homeland security dollars). But that was fought by CSX back in 2005 because diverting the chemicals would impact its profits. And it won an emergency stay and had an initial ruling reversed to its favor on appeal (I don't know where the case currently stands though).


Oh, and a few other tidbits about CSX Corporation: For starters, it has given Bush and other Congressional allies around $600,000. And guess who used to head up CSX Corporation? None other than Treasury Secretary John Snow himself.


Ah, but I digress.


So how bad is the situation? Well, even though the American Association for Railroads claims that they have a 99.997% percent safety rating, which I will say is pretty impressive, there are many things that are still severely lacking. For starters, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the US railways a "C-" on its 2005 report card, indicating the following:

For the first time since World War II, limited rail capacity has created significant chokepoints and delays. This problem will increase as freight rail tonnage is expected to increase at least 50% by 2020. In addition, the use of rail trackage for intercity passenger and commuter rail service is increasingly being recognized as a worthwhile transportation investment. Congestion relief, improved safety, environmental and economic development benefits result from both freight and passenger market shifts to rail creating a rationale for public sector investment. The freight railroad industry needs to spend $175-$195 billion over the next 20 years to maintain existing infrastructure and expand for freight growth. Expansion of the railroad network to develop intercity corridor passenger rail service is estimated to cost approximately $60 billion over 20 years. All told, investment needs are $12-13 billion per year.


And there is a push to make stronger cars, as well as try to push Congress and chemical producers to use safer chemicals. However, the potential for major death and destruction can't be (but sadly is being) ignored. According to the Judge in the CSX case:

As Judge Sullivan observed: "One study [which was conducted by the Naval Research Lab] estimates that an attack on a single rail tank car of chlorine traveling through Washington, during a celebration or political event, could kill or seriously harm 100,000 people within an hour. The toxic plume resulting from such an attack could extend over 40 miles from the point of release, including a core area of about 4 miles by 14.5 miles, within which exposure could be deadly." Instead, however, of working with the city to minimize the catastrophic possibility, the feds and CSX are spending their time and energy in litigation defending CSX's balance sheet and U.S. government turf.


And it is not like this isn't on the radar of Congressional officials and homeland security analysts. According to Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) and homeland security analyst Randal Larson:

"It would not be difficult for terrorists to launch an attack with weapons no more sophisticated than terrorists are using in Iraq today -- a shoulder-fired missile or small bomb -- to rupture one or more or these rail cars and threaten a major section of a city," said homeland security analyst Randall Larsen.


---snip---


"The industry says that they can't afford to build in the additional protections for the public," said Markey. "The truth is that our country can't afford not to build in those extra protections. The damage would be in the billions if one of these incidents occurred in a densely populated area. Spending millions of dollars to protect against it will be viewed as a very small price."


While the Center for American Progress has a detailed report on how to increase railway security, Bush only feels the need to fund the nation's railway security program with $100 million for the entire year.


So while the republicans talk tough about fighting terrorism and about homeland security, here is another major but little discussed area where our homeland is at great risk and yet nothing serious is being done about it.

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