Mobile Chernobyls

Toxic Trains May Be Rumbling Through Your Town

* ITEM: In the pre-dawn hours of April 11, 1996, along railroad tracks one mile west of the rural Montana community of Alberton, four Montana Rail Link tank cars suddenly derail. The largest mixed chemical release in railroad history—and the second biggest chlorine spill—sends a plume of more than 265,000 pounds of toxins into the air. Over 1,000 people are forced to flee their homes for what becomes a 17-day evacuation; one person dies, another 352 are injured. Residents still report respiratory ailments, memory loss, vision impairment, nerve damage and other lingering effects.

* ITEM: At about 2:30 a.m. on July 1, 1997, two Union Pacific freight trains collide outside the little town of Rossville, Kansas. The tankers contain chlorine, sulfuric acid and nuclear materials. As an enormous fire sends up a massive dark cloud, all 1,100 residents are evacuated. Later it's determined that the chemical tankers had not caught fire—the billowing smoke was instead from burning tires. “Today's accident in Kansas,” says a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman, “sort of underlines our concern….Safety needs to be looked at much closer.”

Photo Herb Slodounik/AP/Wide World Photos

Indeed. And today, an ever-increasing volume of hazardous chemicals are moving on our nation's railways. And, if Congress has its way, they will soon be joined by tons of high-level nuclear waste bound for storage at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. “The severity of risk is growing,” says Sanford Lewis, a Boston-based attorney and author of a 1997 report, Hazardous Materials on the Rails, for the Good Neighbor Project for Sustainable Industries. “It's as if federal regulators have been asleep at the switch. They've been allowing the industry to set the terms of regulation, rather than taking aggressive action to put known and available safeguards into place.”

According to Lewis' study, chemical shipments on trains increased by almost 30 percent between 1990 and 1995—from 1.4 million to 1.8 million car loadings annually. The nation's biggest hauler, Union Pacific (UP), operates a fleet of 2,100 cars daily, transporting chemicals along 36,000 miles of track spanning 23 states (most of the continental U.S. west of the Mississippi, with the majority of products coming from the Texas/Louisiana “chemical corridor.”)

Since a 1996 merger with Southern Pacific (SP), UP's hazardous materials shipping has continued to grow. But the two firms' combined track record does not inspire confidence. Some 2,090 hazardous materials incidents were reported by UP and SP between 1991 and 1995. Most of these were smaller spills, such as leaks from tank cars and diesel engines, but UP also had 28 accidents involving chemical releases.

“According to Union Pacific itself,” says Lewis' report, “approximately 10 percent of the railroad's 9,000 chemical tank car inspections [in 1996] found 'exceptions,' such as unlabeled or mislabeled tankers, or tops not positioned properly on tank cars.” One surprise inspection by the Federal Railroad Administration found 37 percent of the cars in one UP railyard defective, including 96 with brake problems.

Consider then, the implications of moving high-level radioactive waste now being stored at dozens of nuclear power and weapons plants around the U.S. According to a recent statement by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS): “If an interim storage facility is built at the Nevada test site, as is proposed in current legislation, thousands of truck and train shipments would move dangerous radioactive waste across the country, within one-half mile of 52 million people.”

Passing through as many as 43 states, every rail cask would weigh up to 125 tons. Inside these, spent nuclear fuel or solid uranium and fission products would be stacked like poker chips within metal tubes. Each of the cask's 24 fuel assemblies would contain 10 times the long-lived radioactivity that was released by the Hiroshima bomb. Little wonder that many environmental groups have termed this scenario a potential “Mobile Chernobyl.” In November, NIRS, Public Citizen, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the Sierra Club and 225 other organizations sent a letter/petition to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, demanding that the proposed Yucca Mountain repository be disqualified from further development. (Geologic problems identified at the site itself indicate the likelihood of eventual leaks, say opponents.)

As things stand, about 85 percent of all national rail transport is through “dark” areas, where automated signaling has not yet reached and dispatchers still issue radio-communicated “warrants” for train movements. Safer technologies, which could provide engineers with a warning when another train is approaching, have not been widely applied. At the same time that UP has increased its shipments, the company has down-sized its work force. This means that many employees are working longer hours, and have complained that they lack sufficient training for accident response.

Chemical rail transport remains exempt from federal and community environmental Right-to-Know laws, so there's no way for the average person to know when extremely dangerous phosgene gas or nuclear materials are passing through. Forcing such public disclosure is the initial thrust of a nationwide campaign/petition drive launched last July by victims of the 1996 Alberton, Montana spill. The coalition also seeks to require railroads to repair defective track (the cause of the Alberton disaster), and is calling for a phase-out of industrial chlorine use.

There is ample reason for Montanans to spearhead such an effort. An estimated 25,000 hazardous waste-filled rail cars pass through the state each year, along track that often does not meet federal safety standards. According to a 1998 state fact finder issued by Congressional Quarterly, more toxic chemicals are released per person in Montana than anywhere else in the U.S.

“Legal protection to protect people who've been harmed in these accidents is almost non-existent,” says Darrell Geist of the Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers grassroots group in Missoula. “There's no recourse in the law, other than personal tort claims, which can drag on for years and years. And since the accident here, we've found that what's happening with railroad transport of toxic chemicals around the country is a black hole when it comes to regulation.”