Saturday, January 08, 2005
How do we know if danger is moving through Roanoke?
Virginia's emergency department only knows that trains are hauling hazardous materials.
Railroads do not have to notify the Virginia Department of Emergency Management of the exact chemicals they haul, said spokesman Bob Spieldenner. The agency only knows that the railroad and trucks haul chemicals and hazardous materials.
Railroads are, however, required to submit a form, the "One-percent Waybill Sample," to the Surface Transportation Board. The carriers tell the federal agency the tonnage, weight and what kinds of freight they are hauling, including hazardous wastes.
Local and state agencies can get the waybill sample but cannot share it with the public because of security reasons.
At the city level, Roanoke officials know Norfolk Southern hauls chemicals, but not unless an accident occurs would they know specific contents. Norfolk Southern would share the contents with emergency responders as soon as possible, said spokeswoman Susan Terpay.
Responders also can identify chemicals or other hazardous materials when an accident happens, said Joe Coyle, city coordinator of Emergency Management. Any train car or truck carrying hazardous materials must be labeled.
That could change.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a request for comment in the Federal Register on the labeling.
Because of concerns about the potential use of toxic inhalation hazard materials by terrorists, the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation are considering whether to require removal of placards and other markings on rail tank cars carrying those materials.
"We're reviewing the issue to determine the most appropriate method of identifying hazardous materials on rail cars to balance security needs with the safety needs," said Amy von Walter, spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.
Some oppose removing the placards.
"We have not been supportive of that unless something else is developed to give local emergency responders what they need on a timely basis," said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.
Roanoke Fire-EMS Deputy Chief David Hoback said he assumes that if the placards are removed, there would be another way of obtaining the necessary information. Usually, the cars are numbered.
"We have an understanding about what routinely is coming through. The cars are labeled. That is required; whether corrosive, respiratory toxic, etcetera," said Hoback.
He said Norfolk Southern has always been "very cooperative" and is quick to respond.
Steve Davis, spokesman for the Giles County haz-mat team, said his agency pretty much knows what trucks haul because of Virginia Tech studies. He said he was not aware of a similar study for the railroads. "In other words, we don't have a study that tells us we have 100,000 tons of chemical XYZ."
Norfolk Southern completed 360,000 shipments of hazardous materials in 2004. Federal law requires NS and other "common carriers" to transport chlorine and other hazardous materials.
The AAR said railroads haul about 1.7 million tons of hazardous materials a year, including chemicals.
"In 2003 there were only 25 incidents in which any materials were released as a result of a train accident," White said.
From 1994 through 2003, 106 people were killed as a result of hazardous material accidents on the highways, compared with the six who were killed as a result of similar accidents on the rails, White said.
"For many years, we've been shipping cargo through communities, and communities do not appreciate how dangerous these cargos are," said Fred Millar, a consultant on homeland security and hazardous materials issues in Washington, D.C.
Part of the reason, he said, is there is no requirement for railroads to notify local communities. "We're lucky these chlorine releases did not occur in any city of substantial size because a lot more people could have been killed." Some community organizations and activist groups have argued that dangerous substances such as chlorine gas should be routed around busy commercial areas or densely populated residential neighborhoods.
"I don't think government is taking [that campaign] very seriously," said Stephen Lester, science director for the Falls Church-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
People who live adjacent to rail lines should be informed by railroad officials about what potential dangers they face, he said. If an accident occurs, Lester said, neighbors armed with this knowledge might respond more quickly to evidence of a spill or official notice to leave home or work.
Staff writers Duncan Adams and Lindsey Nair contributed to this report.