Toxic Trains Threaten Safety

Deadly train accident in Ukraine should act as a wake up call that we need to act swiftly to prevent a similar tragedy in the United States

When a train carrying flammable phosphorous derailed in the Ukraine today, a cloud of toxic gas spread over 14 villages. Hundreds of local residents were evacuated, and those who remained were advised to stay inside, avoid drinking water from their wells, and refrain from eating local produce or animal products.

Phosphorous is widely used in explosives, friction matches, fireworks, pesticides, toothpaste, and detergents. This should serve as a wake up call for policy makers in the United States, where every year thousands of rail cars carrying highly toxic chlorine gas pass through nearly every major city.

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.

If just one of these trains 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.

The good news is that 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.

Railroads, by their nature, are wide open and largely insecure, providing easy access to railcars. This makes it practically impossible to provide security commensurate with the risk presented by railcars of chlorine gas.

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.
  • 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. Now that we’ve seen the toxic damage caused by a rail accident abroad, it’s time for us to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening in the United States.

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