Toxic-Freight Threat a Challenge to U.S. Cities

Every year, freight trains in the United States carry chemicals so toxic that they could kill anyone inhaling the fumes. The trains often travel through the center of America's cities, raising worries that terrorists could attack them and cause mass casualties. But ordinances to reroute the trains are tied up in court.

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Every year, freight trains carry more than five million tons of chemicals so toxic that they could kill anyone inhaling the fumes. The trains often travel through the center of America's cities, raising worries that terrorists could attack them, causing mass casualties. Local efforts to reroute those trains are tied up in court.

But as NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports, Congress could soon give cities some of the protection they want.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Weapons of mass destruction, that's what federal officials fear freight trains like this one could become.

(Soundbite of a passing freight train)

SCHALCH: It's a CSX train hauling hazardous chemicals through a residential neighborhood in Washington D.C.

Mr. RICK HIND (Legislative Director, Greenpeace Toxics Campaign): Here's the engine going by now.

SCHALCH: Rick Hind heads Greanpeace's Toxic Chemicals Program. He walks through an open gate onto the track bed. Like most of the nation's 170,000 miles of tracks, this one is easily accessible. Hinds points out the types of tankers that might be attacked.

Mr. HIND: That's hazardous material, we don't know which one it is. Two more Hazmat cars went by.

SCHALCH: Nearly six percent of these Hazmat cars carry especially deadly chemicals like chlorine. Just one 90-ton tank car blown up or punctured would release an invisible suffocating cloud of gas.

Mr. HIND: The gas spreads very quickly and settles in low-lying areas and essentially liquefies people's lungs - the medical community refers to as pulmonary edema.

SCHALCH: Such an incident could kill or injure 100,000 people in less than a half an hour. Washington D.C. passed an ordinance two years ago to reroute such dangerous shipments. That case is tied up in federal appeals court. Nine other major cities have introduced similar ordinances, but the chemical and railroad industries are fighting back. Marty Durbin, the top lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, says rerouting shipments is not practical.

Mr. MARTY DURBIN (American Chemistry Council): These hazardous materials are used throughout our economy and, you know, importantly in things as critical as water treatment and, you know, food safety, agriculture, defense.

SCHALCH: Durbin says industry is already working with the government to minimize the risk of terrorism.

Mr. DURBIN: If there's a big event on the National Mall, they reroute the materials or they don't bring materials through during those times. I'm not saying routing isn't an important factor. It is.

SCHALCH: But, Durbin says, doing it on a routine basis would be a logistical nightmare. Peggy Nasir of the Association of American Railroads agrees. And she says it would only shift the risk from one place to another.

Ms. PEGGY NASIR (Association of American Railroads): And you can imagine the chain reaction that the railroads have to deal with. Okay, D.C. doesn't want it, then Maryland doesn't want, then Philadelphia doesn't want it, then Buffalo doesn't want it.

SCHALCH: The railroads say they are very worried about hauling potentially deadly chemicals. They've asked Congress to cap their liability in case of a catastrophic accident or attack. And Peggy Nasir has another suggestion.

Ms. NASIR: We have to look at using safer chemicals.

SCHALCH: She wants chemicals like chlorine phased out. But Fred Millar, chemical safety consultant to Washington D.C. and other cities, says something needs to be done now.

Mr. FRED MILLAR (Chemical Safety Consultant, Washington D.C.): It is the height of insanity to be continuing to allow these cargos to go right through our major cities. I say if we don't reroute these cargos, we are pre-positioning them for the benefit of the terrorists.

SCHALCH: Many lawmakers agree. The House and Senate have passed separate railroad security bills and could finish the final version as early as this week. For the first time railroads would have to disclose which deadly chemicals they're hauling through cities and look for alternate routes that might be safer.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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