The Howard Street Tunnel fire that brought rail traffic along the East Coast to a standstill and closed downtown businesses for days more than three years ago had one saving grace: No one was killed or seriously hurt by the fumes from the burning tanker car.
But trains carrying deadly chemicals such as chlorine continue to rumble through the heart of Baltimore with little notice and little apparent security. Tank cars that carry chlorine and other toxic chemicals were seen standing at a CSX rail yard in South Baltimore last week.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions on the transportation by rail of toxic chemicals incorrectly identified Dennis Schrader. He is director of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security. The Sun regrets the error.
The potential peril of this toxic traffic was brought home again this month when a train derailment ruptured a Norfolk Southern tank car and unleashed a choking cloud of caustic chlorine gas near the small town of Graniteville, S.C., killing nine people and injuring 250.
Baltimore officials are aware of the risk. They are doing their part to lessen the traffic by phasing out the use of pure chlorine to treat wastewater and replacing it with less dangerous bleach, according to Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the city Department of Public Works. Last month, he said, the department completed the conversion of the Back River plant, the city's largest, to using bleach - eliminating the need to run railcars filled with chlorine to the facility.
Officials for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said they were doing the same thing but still need to use chlorine to treat drinking water.
City fire official Ronald Addison said companies and government agencies that use chlorine in Baltimore have cut their consumption by 90 percent and have largely abandoned the practice of stockpiling chlorine on site since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, forced security experts to think about hazards that were once unthinkable.
Still, chlorine - a liquid when transported in a pressurized tank - is a fact of life in an industrial city that is also a hub for freight transportation. Chlorine is a crucial element in the manufacture of chemicals, solvents, pharmaceuticals and household products.
"It's something our society is not going to do without," Addison said.
The city continues to accept the risks associated with the transport and storage of chlorine and other toxic materials, in part because of its confidence in the safety record of the railroad industry.
99.9% success rate
CSX Transportation spokesman Robert T. Sullivan said that out of 513,000 shipments of hazardous materials handled by the railroad last year, seven had any sort of release. That's better than a 99.9 percent success rate.
But the people of Graniteville learned the consequences of being one of those few exceptions Jan. 6, when a Norfolk Southern train slammed into parked railroad cars, puncturing a chlorine tank. About 5,400 residents were evacuated; hundreds had still not returned to their homes yesterday.
In July 2001, Baltimore was luckier. The railcars that burned in the Howard Street Tunnel were carrying noxious chemicals, but none of them was as dangerous as chlorine.
The fire tied up East Coast rail freight traffic for days and damaged much of downtown's underground infrastructure. But nobody died. Had the ruptured railcars been carrying chlorine, which Addison calls "the No. 1 bad guy" among toxic chemicals, the results could have been catastrophic - especially if the release took place near the residential neighborhoods surrounding the approaches to the tunnel.
Authorities believe the South Carolina accident may have been the result of a work crew leaving a switch in the wrong position. In a report released Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board could not determine a cause of the Howard Street Tunnel fire, which was so intense that it destroyed possible evidence. But the board said the most likely explanation was a flaw in the track.
Critics of the railroad industry say the next chemical spill might not be an accident. With terrorism a threat, they say, railroads should divert hazardous cargoes from heavily populated areas.
"We are pre-positioning cargoes that the federal government calls potential weapons of mass destruction right in our high-target cities," said Fred Millar, a consultant on the transport of hazardous materials. "The terrorists have known this stuff for years."
Members of the District of Columbia Council say that in recent months, CSX officials have been rerouting hazardous shipments around Washington, where tank cars of chlorine would routinely pass within four blocks of the Capitol.
That unofficial policy, which a CSX spokesman would neither acknowledge nor discuss, does not apply to Baltimore or other potential target cities. Critics such as Millar say company officials want to keep the Washington rerouting secret so that other cities won't take notice and seek similar treatment.