Rule On Hazmat Rail Safety Issued | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: April 21, 2008

Rule On Hazmat Rail Safety Issued

Trains hauling most dangerous chemicals must use safest route
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Homeland Security
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Credit: Roger Dale Pleis/Shutterstock
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Credit: Roger Dale Pleis/Shutterstock

The nation's freight railroads will be required to carry highly toxic chemicals and other hazardous materials on the "safest and most secure routes" available under a new federal regulation aimed at reducing the risks of derailments and terrorist attacks.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) rule directs railroad companies to assess whether it would be safer to send trains hauling chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, or other poisonous materials to alternative routes around the nation's largest cities. "This strong measure better ensures that rail shipments of hazardous materials will reach their final destinations safely and without incident," DOT Secretary Mary E. Peters says.

Beginning on June 1, the rule requires railroads to conduct a safety and security risk analysis of its primary route and any alternative routes over which it has authority to operate. The analysis must consider information provided by local communities and a minimum of 27 risk factors including trip length, volume and type of hazmat being moved, existing safety measures along the route, and population density.

Railroads must implement their routing decisions by September 2009. The rule also includes several rail security provisions designed to guard against tampering with railcars and their contents during transportation. DOT estimates railroads will spend $20 million to comply with the requirements.

The chemical industry, which relies heavily on freight railroads to deliver raw materials and to ship finished products, welcomes the government's approach.

"We are still looking at the details, but we are very pleased with the direction DOT has taken," says Martin J. Durbin, managing director of federal affairs at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade group representing the nation's largest chemical manufacturers. "The good news here is that we've got DOT taking a holistic view of the safety of moving hazardous materials."

The department recently proposed new standards to improve the structural integrity of tank cars and is also examining the role that human factors play in rail accidents. Now DOT is "addressing the issue of routing and other operational factors of moving these critical materials," Durbin says.

ACC has been concerned with congressional proposals that would give states and cities the authority to reroute trains away from major population centers.

"These types of issues have to be dealt with by the federal agencies that have expertise in safety," Durbin says. "You're also dealing with interstate commerce here, and you really can't have different sets of rules in different localities." Conflicting local ordinances would disrupt rail operations and could "shut down the entire system," he says.

Critics complain that the rule could allow railroads to route dangerous cargo however they see fit and could preempt attempts by major cities to ban or restrict the transport of hazardous materials within their limits.

The rule "puts individual railroads in charge of analyzing their own current routes and alternatives," says the environmental group Friends of the Earth in a statement. "DOT appeals in the regulation to the 'good faith' of the railroads—a flawed approach."

 
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