Each year, thousands of tons of highly toxic chlorine gas are shipped by rail to drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities around the United States. These toxic trains travel over thousands of miles of rail and through populous areas, placing millions of Americans at risk. A rupture of one of these railcars could release a lethal plume of gas for miles downwind, potentially causing thousands of casualties.
Chlorine gas railcars represent a major national security vulnerability. The Department of Homeland Security has warned that terrorists could use industrial chemicals as improvised weapons of mass destruction. Yet the Bush administration and Congress have failed to eliminate unnecessary uses of chlorine gas railcars even where more affordable and practical water-treatment alternatives exist.
To examine the toxic-trains threat and provide policy solutions for reducing the hazard, the Center for American Progress recently surveyed water utilities that still receive chlorine gas by rail, as well as utilities that have eliminated chlorine railcars by switching to a less hazardous disinfectant.
Here’s a by-the-numbers look at the unnecessary risk we’re taking with toxic trains and how we can eliminate this threat by converting to safer water treatment options.
Thousands of miles traveled, millions of people at risk
300,000: Miles of freight railways traversed by trains that carry highly toxic chlorine gas, passing through almost all major American cities and towns.
37: Drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities that still receive chlorine gas by rail, according to CAP’s survey. Of these, only six have plans to convert to safer alternatives in the near future.
25 million: Number of Americans who live near these facilities. Millions more live in cities and towns along rail delivery routes.
7: Number of water utilities still using chlorine gas railcars in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area, the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the nation and home to nearly 6 million people.
Potential for catastrophe
160: Number of mostly-minor spill reports involving railroads and chlorine that have occurred since 1990. This equals more than one every six weeks, according to the National Response Center.
14 to 25: Miles downwind a dense, lethal plume of chlorine gas can travel from a single ruptured railcar.
17,500: Number of people who could be killed by a major chlorine railcar spill, according to a Department of Homeland Security estimate.
100,000: Serious injuries or deaths such a spill could cause in a scenario involving large holiday crowds, according to a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Report.
250: Number of terrorist attacks against rail targets between 1995 and 2005.
Conversions give big safety payoffs for manageable costs
25: Number of water utilities that used to receive chlorine gas by rail but since 1999 have switched to safer and more secure water treatment options.
26 million: Number of Americans who are safer and more secure as a result.
$1.50: Cost per person served each year of converting facilities from chlorine gas to safer disinfectants.
$1.50: Cost of a bag of potato chips
Toxic trains are an immense threat to the nation’s railways and communities, and one that can be eliminated at a manageable cost. Meaningful federal security standards that go beyond the temporary and cosmetic chemical security legislation enacted last fall are necessary to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of this vulnerability.
Chemical facilities must be required to use available, cost-effective technologies that reduce or eliminate serious emergency chemical release hazards; target assistance to help water utilities convert from chlorine gas; give the Department of Homeland Security full authority to safeguard chemical infrastructure and the public; and require chemical facilities to account for transportation risks in developing security plans.
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