City out to learn what's in CSX cars

Rail crash revives push for timely data on chemical content

November 27, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy and Stephen Kiehl | Sumathi Reddy and Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporters

The derailment of a CSX freight train carrying hazardous materials through Baltimore has again pushed to the forefront concerns about whether city officials know what dangerous cargo is passing through each day.

Though last weekend's accident, in which 12 train cars fell off the tracks near M&T Bank Stadium, left no injuries or leaks, city officials say they intend to press CSX Transportation Inc. for real-time information on what chemicals are coming in and out of Baltimore - information to which the city does not now have regular access.

Mayor Sheila Dixon held a security Cabinet meeting yesterday with police, fire, health and transportation representatives to discuss requesting such information immediately.

Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said a call was made to CSX yesterday and that he hopes to have access to such information within a week. "This could really be a simple thing that CSX could do in 72 hours and look heroic," Goodwin said.

"You have 70,000 in the stadium at the Army-Navy game this weekend. ... You're looking at a large potential there for something to go wrong," Goodwin said.

Baltimore is the only location in the country, Goodwin noted, where hazardous materials run just 35 feet from a large-volume football stadium and near a baseball stadium. "This is an area that serves the whole Northeast corridor, and we just want some real-time operational assets," he said.

The issue of rail safety and hazardous materials first drew public scrutiny in Baltimore after a weeklong fire beneath the city's downtown in July 2001. Fire erupted on a CSX train carrying hazardous materials through the Howard Street Tunnel, forcing evacuations in the city and paralyzing freight traffic along the East Coast.

More than six years later, CSX officials say Baltimore is slated to participate in a one-year pilot program that would give city officials access to up-to-date information, likely sometime next summer.

But city officials want it sooner.

Andrew Lauland, who was homeland security adviser to former Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the administration worked from July 2001 until O'Malley left office this year to gain access to real-time information but it never came.

"If UPS knows where a package of cookies you shipped to your grandmother is, clearly a major rail carrier should know where a 1-ton cylinder of chlorine is," said Lauland, who is now Governor O'Malley's homeland security adviser.

Goodwin said the infrastructure is already in place through the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, a 24-hour FBI watch center that investigates potential terrorist and criminal events that could lead to a large-scale catastrophe.

New York, New Jersey and Kentucky are currently participating in the pilot program, said Bob Sullivan, a spokesman for CSX.

Sullivan said Baltimore officials currently receive a historical record of what went through the city during the preceding year, as well as real-time information if and when they call and request it.

Lauland said the railroads are worried that sensitive information about hazardous materials could fall into the wrong hands, but he said that is not a reasonable excuse. "My belief is that all of these problems are eminently solvable and need to be solved for public safety," he said.

The results of a hazardous spill were even more pronounced in 2005 when a freight train struck a car on the tracks in Graniteville, S.C., causing a rupture in a tanker carrying liquid chlorine. The release caused a poisonous chlorine cloud; nine people were killed and 250 fell ill.

"And that was nowhere near as bad as it could have been," said Paul Orum, a Washington-based consultant on chemical safety issues, noting the rural location of Graniteville. "In a densely populated area such as Baltimore, one can envision a much worse result."

The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating the cause of Saturday's accident, which occurred about 8 a.m. when 12 train cars headed for North Carolina derailed beneath the Ostend Street bridge. Three of the cars contained hazardous materials.

Freight traffic resumed Sunday, and MARC trains were running yesterday.

Steve Kulm, the federal agency's spokesman, said a number of plans are under way to improve freight traffic, including looking at routes used to transport hazardous materials.

The agency is also in the initial stages of putting together new hazardous material tank car design standards. "Certainly hazmat tank cars have a good record now, but we're looking at making them even more safe," said Kulm.

Peggy Nasir, vice president of communications for the Association of American Railroads, said 99.97 percent of all hazardous material cars arrive at their destinations safely. Also, 99.1 percent of accidents result in no release of chemicals, she said.

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