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Toxic Trains and the Terrorist Threat

How Water Utilities Can Get Chlorine Gas Off the Rails and Out of American Communities

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Read the full report (PDF)

Listen to P.J. Crowley, Reece Rushing, and Paul Orum Discuss the report

See locations of water utilities receiving chlorine gas railcars

Each year, thousands of tons of highly toxic chlorine gas travel by rail in the United States to drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities and other industries. These massive railcars traverse some 300,000 miles of freight railways, passing through almost all major American cities and towns. A rupture of one of these railcars could release a dense, lethal plume for miles downwind, potentially killing or injuring thousands of people.

The Department of Homeland Security and numerous security experts have repeatedly warned that terrorists could use industrial chemicals as improvised weapons of mass destruction—and indeed, terrorists recently attacked and blew up several trucks carrying chlorine in Iraq. In this respect, railcars of chlorine gas represent a distinct national security vulnerability. Yet Congress and the Bush administration have not acted to eliminate unnecessary uses of chlorine gas railcars even where undeniably affordable and practical alternatives exist.

To examine this vulnerability and encourage action, the Center for American Progress surveyed water utilities that still receive chlorine gas by rail, as well as utilities that since 1999 have eliminated chlorine railcars by switching to a less hazardous disinfectant. Our major findings are shown in the box on page 3.

Just 37 drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities still receive chlorine gas by rail. More than 25 million Americans live in harm’s way near these facilities,1 while millions more live in cities and towns along the rail delivery routes.

The good news is this vulnerability can be removed. Since 1999, some 25 water utilities that formerly received chlorine gas by rail have switched to safer and more secure water treatment options, such as liquid bleach or ultraviolet light. These alternative treatment options eliminate the danger of a catastrophic toxic gas cloud. As a result, more than 26 million Americans who live near these facilities are safer and more secure.

These conversions also remove the threat to communities along rail delivery routes. Railroads, by their nature, are wide open and largely insecure, providing easy access to railcars—as evidenced by the graffiti that frequently marks them (see photo on page 15). This makes it practically impossible to provide security commensurate with the risk presented by railcars of chlorine gas.

The only way to truly protect communities is to get unnecessary toxic cargoes off the tracks. Converting to safer alternatives for water treatment does that.

There continues to be some progress in this direction. At least six water utilities that now use chlorine-gas railcars are in the process of converting operations. Nonetheless, many others contacted by this survey have no plans to change.

Cost was a frequently cited reason for not converting. But the survey found such conversions are affordable even at large facilities, costing no more than $1.50 per person served each year—or the price of a bag of potato chips—and often much less. Put another way, a single day’s expenditures on the war in Iraq could cover construction costs of converting the remaining U.S. water utilities off chlorine gas railcars. Cost is not a sufficient justification to continue to jeopardize American communities with massive railcars of chlorine gas.

State and local governments may provide incentives for water utilities to switch from chlorine gas. But communities along the rails have little or no local control over toxic trains that pass by homes, workplaces, and schools. The plant conversions identified in this report are positive, but without a national strategy, these communities will be much less secure than they should be.

Washington, D.C., for example, quickly converted its sewage treatment plant from chlorine gas railcars to liquid bleach in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But hazardous chemicals, including chlorine gas, are still being transported by rail through the District just a few city blocks from the U.S. Capitol building—an intended target on 9/11.

In response, the city government sought to reroute toxic trains around the city. The Bush administration, however, has backed a lawsuit to block local control, arguing that local governments lack legal authority to protect citizens by rerouting trains.

The story is the same in other cities that have converted water utilities from chlorine- gas railcars, such as Cleveland and Indianapolis. Despite converting, these cities are still at risk from chlorine-gas railcars headed to other cities that have not converted, such as Minneapolis and Nashville.

A comprehensive solution can only come from the federal level. In fact, judges in the ongoing litigation over rerouting in Washington, D.C., have encouraged the Bush administration to develop a national strategy to address the security and safety dangers involved in the manufacture, use, and transportation of chlorine gas and other hazardous chemicals. Unfortunately, the administration and Congress have largely ignored this advice.

After years of inaction, and under growing public pressure, temporary and cosmetic chemical security legislation was enacted in October 2006 requiring the Department of Homeland Security to promulgate chemical-plant security regulations by April 4, 2007. But the legislation exempts water utilities, does not address transportation security concerns, and neglects safer and more secure technologies. Thus, among other shortcomings, DHS’s new regulations will do nothing to address the risk posed to tens of millions of Americans by unnecessary rail shipments of chlorine gas to water utilities.

To address this danger and other chemical hazards, Congress must create meaningful national incentives. Among other actions, federal security standards should:

  • Require chemical facilities to review and use available, cost-effective technologies that significantly reduce or eliminate serious emergency chemical release hazards;
  • Target assistance to help water utilities convert from chlorine gas, including facilities that discontinued chlorine gas after Sept. 11, 2001;
  • Give the Department of Homeland Security full authority to safeguard chemical infrastructure and the public, with appropriate roles for other governmental agencies; and
  • Require chemical facilities to account for transportation risks—including the possibility of a catastrophic chemical release—in developing security assessments and plans.

Taking these actions would remove unnecessary toxic cargoes from the nation’s railways and communities. The danger is immense and the solutions are clear. What we need now is action.

Major Findings

The Center for American Progress surveyed 62 water facilities that receive chlorine gas by rail or previously received chlorine gas by rail. These facilities treat an average of five billion gallons of drinking water and four billion gallons of wastewater each day, and serve more than 45 million people in two dozen states and the District of Columbia. The survey identified facilities that have eliminated chlorine gas railcars, but also found others that have no plans to do so. Major survey findings include:

  • Only 24 drinking water and 13 wastewater facilities still use rail shipments of chlorine gas. These facilities are found in California, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. These facilities endanger more than 25 million Americans who live nearby, and millions more near railways that deliver the chlorine gas.
  • At least six drinking water and 19 wastewater facilities have eliminated rail shipments of chlorine gas since 1999 by switching to a less hazardous disinfectant. These facilities are found in California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Some 26 million people in nearby communities and millions more along rail delivery routes are no longer threatened by chlorine gas from these facilities. Additional water utilities eliminated chlorine gas rail shipments prior to 1999.
  • Of facilities that still receive rail shipments of chlorine gas, at least four drinking water and two wastewater plants have definite plans to convert from chlorine gas to a safer, more secure disinfectant. These facilities are found in Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Virginia. By converting, they will remove the threat to more than five million people living nearby, and millions more along their rail delivery routes. Several more such facilities are planning to convert within a few years, and others are evaluating alternatives.
  • Chlorine gas rail shipments travel long distances through populated areas. Some 16 chlorine production sites sell chlorine by rail to the merchant market. The profusion of freight rail lines precludes identifying specific routes between producers and water utilities. The locations of producers and chlorine-gas-using water utilities, however, make clear that rail shipments often cover hundreds or even thousands of miles.
  • General cost estimates provided by 20 water facilities indicate that switching from chlorine gas to a safer, more secure disinfectant is affordable. Conversions at these facilities cost no more than $1.50 per person served each year—or the price of a bag of potato chips—and often cost much less. A single day’s expenditures on the war in Iraq could easily have paid to convert these 20 facilities off chlorine gas.

Read the full report (PDF)

Listen to P.J. Crowley, Reece Rushing, and Paul Orum Discuss the report

See locations of water utilities receiving chlorine gas railcars

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