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Accident Prone

City Council Members Push Bill to Ban Transport of Hazardous Materials Through Baltimore

Frank Klein
KEEP ON MOVIN': City Councilman Kenneth Harris says the Hazmat ban he helped introduce is designed to 'make us think about the problem now.'

By Stephen Janis | Posted 4/13/2005

When a Norfolk Southern Railroad freight train carrying liquid chlorine derailed in Graniteville, S.C., on Jan. 6, 2005, people closest to the crash were in trouble.

Liquid chlorine, which turns into a gas when released from its pressurized containers, created a deadly cloud that killed nine people in the nearby Avondale Mills plant when the chlorine-filled cars slammed into parked freight cars unloading at the plant. According to eyewitness accounts, some workers who tried to escape were unable to start their cars because the chlorine, combined with the humid air, impaired ignition systems. The poison cloud also landed 250 residents of Graniteville in the hospital.

What happened in Graniteville could also happen in Baltimore—similar cargo travels through the city, courtesy of CSX Corp., which operates the largest rail network in the Northeast. But the city’s emergency planning team often does not know where or when those shipments are coming through the city, and after the Graniteville incident, mayors of multiple U.S. cities, including Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asking to be notified when chlorine-laden cars are traveling through town.

Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for the mayor’s office, says “the fire department requests the schedule of all hazardous-trains shipments, but it’s been a struggle to get the information.”

“I think they [CSX] figure ignorance is bliss,” says Ronald Addison, head of the Baltimore Fire Department’s Office of Homeland Security. “You can’t worry about it if you don’t know it’s out there.”

Frustrated by the lack of information and communication between freight operators and government officials, some Baltimore City Council members are trying to force a change. A new City Council bill, titled Hazardous Materials-Transporting and introduced three weeks ago by Councilman Kenneth Harris (D-4th District) and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th) wants to give the city more control over the type and amount of hazardous cargo that travels through the city. The bill would not allow any transportation of hazardous material by railway or truck though a specific “hazmat” zone, defined in the bill as “all points within the geographic boundaries of Baltimore City” that can be shipped by “a practical alternative route.” Cargoes for which no alternative route exists would need to acquire a permit before being allowed through. In other words, according to the language of the bill, Baltimore City, with its concentrated urban population, would be accessible to shippers of hazardous materials only as a last resort.

The bill, Harris says, is meant “to open a dialogue to protect the city.” Harris says he has researched other hazardous-materials mishaps around the country, and that the city needs to be “proactive” to protect its citizens.

“At this point we don’t have a plan,” to mitigate the likelihood of a hazardous-materials accident, Harris says, pointing out that some of the CSX tunnels in the city go right past homes and schools. “Imagine what would happen if an accident like the one in Graniteville happened near Margaret Brent Elementary. This bill will make us think about the problem now.”

Part of the problem, Addison says, is that the city does not know exactly how much chlorine or other toxic freight is moving through the city at any given time—information that could help the city come up with emergency-management plans to keep residents safer.

“We had some difficulty in getting that information from CSX,” he says. “They claim that all the switching of tracks and cargo makes it difficult to know.”

Addison says he supports Harris’ bill in principle, although he is concerned about the logistics. He notes that “accidents happen,” but a catastrophic spill that could devastate the city? “That sounds like a Hollywood scenario,” he says.

“We have a lot of trucks coming in and out of the port,” Addison says, noting that the fire department’s philosophy is to prepare for “everything,” just in case. “We’re not always going to know what’s there ahead of time, but we prepare for anything and we have the equipment to respond. Regardless of the chemical, our procedures are the same.”

Hazardous-materials expert Fred Millar, who is advising Councilman Harris on the bill, argues that the general approach to hazmats safety used by many cities is not aggressive enough to protect citizens.

“The contents of one chlorine car released in an urban area could kill 100,000 people,” Millar says. “It’s truly irresponsible for companies to be prepositioning WMDs. Cities need to put their foot on the tracks and say, ‘You’re not coming through.’”

Environmental activist and attorney Terry Harris, head of the local nonprofit Cleanup Coalition, argues that there should be evacuation routes and communications plans, among other precautions, in place before an accident happens.

“There is no specific plan, still, for a chlorine car in the Howard Street Tunnel,” he says. (In 2001, downtown’s Howard Street Tunnel was the site of a serious rail fire that burned out-of-control for three days. The city is involved in an ongoing lawsuit with CSX to determine who was responsible for the accident.) The city’s current emergency plan, Terry Harris says, amounts to “shelter in place.” “What this means,” he says, “is close the windows and pray the wind is blowing the other direction.”

Councilman Harris says his bill would force CSX to find new routes through less-populated areas for its more dangerous freight.

“There are routes in more rural areas,” he says. “We need to work with the freight companies to find ways around the city.”

But finding ways around the city would likely be costly—and difficult. Even Terry Harris points out that one of the alternate routes CSX could take to avoid Baltimore would go through Cumberland, and “there are a lot of people there, too.”

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan claims that a bill like the one Councilman Harris proposes would have broader implications for the national economy and could “throw the system of interstate commerce into a state of chaos.”

“We have an obligation to our customers to ship the safest and fastest route possible,” he says. “It is not logistically possible to be regulated, ad hoc, throughout the country.”

Sullivan points out that diverting freight to avoid major cities would be impractical for shipping companies.

“To avoid Baltimore might take a 1,000-mile diversion through Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh,” he says, adding that the issue should not be regulated by individual municipalities. “Clearly this issue has to be addressed on a national level.”

Further, Sullivan says that CSX is always forthcoming with city governments about its shipments. “We cooperate fully with all local responders,” he says.

Baltimore is not the only city to be grappling with hazardous materials shipments within its borders. In February, Washington passed a bill similar to the one being proposed by Harris and Clarke. It’s now being challenged by CSX and the federal government. Sullivan argues that the bill, which would ban the transport of some highly volatile substances through the District, “violates the Constitution,” which contains a commerce clause naming the federal government as the only body that may restrict interstate trade. According to news reports, CSX transports around 10,000 freight cars containing hazardous materials through Washington each year, and the ban would impact roughly 5 percent of those cars.

Councilman Harris says he’s trying to force CSX and others to start discussing the precautions Baltimore can take before an accident like the one that happened in Graniteville—or another dangerous tunnel fire—happens here.

“Unfortunately sometimes it takes something happening before we react,” he says. “Hopefully this bill will help us avoid that.”

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