Toxic Trains Close to Home

The train derailing in Ohio again clarifies the need for increased security measures on our nation’s rails.

A train derailed today in northeast Ohio. No one was injured, but a cloud of thick, black smoke billowed up from the crash site, and a half-mile area around the explosion has been evacuated. Firefighters had to wait for the flames to die down before putting out the fire because of the train’s toxic cargo. The train was said to be carrying alcohol, butane, and glycerin—toxic and explosive materials.

This week Congress is considering the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act, which would help to reduce human-caused error on the rails and provide for increased safety of the rail infrastructure itself. But rail safety should also include what the trains on the tracks are carrying.

Every year, thousands of tons of toxic chlorine gas travel by rail to drinking water and wastewater facilities and pass through almost all major American cities and towns. The Center for American Progress earlier this year released a report examining water utilities that still receive chlorine gas by rail and outlining simple solutions that would allow these companies to join the ranks of those that have already eliminated chlorine railcars by switching to a less hazardous disinfectant.

People in Painesville are lucky the train wasn’t carrying chlorine. If just one train carrying chlorine gas derailed, a dense, lethal plume of chlorine gas could be released, potentially killing or injuring thousands of people. Thirty-seven drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities around the country still receive chlorine gas by rail. More than 25 million Americans live in harm’s way near these facilities, while millions more live in cities and towns along the rail delivery routes.

Firefighters in Ohio were also having trouble reaching the fire since the tracks were 300 yards from the nearest road. Three hundred yards may be a difficult barrier for fire trucks unequipped for off-roading, but in Washington, D.C., trains carrying hazardous cargo pass almost that close to the Capitol building every day.

To address the danger of chlorine 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.
  • 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 good news is that the 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.

The threat of a major disaster occurring as a result of a toxic train is immense and the solutions are clear. What we need now is action.

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