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Local officials say they’re in the dark on dangerous freight rail traffic

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Sixty-two cities in the United States have been deemed "high threat urban areas" by the Department of Homeland Security, meaning they’re susceptible to attack by terrorists targeting railroad tank cars loaded with chlorine gas or other deadly poisons. Under a 2007 law, freight rail companies were ordered to analyze their operations in these and other areas and select the "safest and most secure practicable" routes for hazardous cargo.

The analysis is complete, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. But some elected officials and emergency responders say they’re being kept in the dark. "Regulations issued last year give the railroads too much control over secret rail routing decisions that impact public safety," Bryan Sloan, chief of the Parma Heights (Ohio) Fire Department and chairman of the Cuyahoga County Local Emergency Planning Committee, wrote in a February 1 letter to Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. "The regulations leave little opportunity for input and no role in decision-making for state and local officials."

The rupture of a 90-ton chlorine tank car has catastrophic potential. The Chlorine Institute’s Pamphlet 74 says such an accident could produce a lethal cloud 15 miles long and four miles wide. In 2003, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory estimated  100,000 people could die or be injured by a chlorine release in downtown Washington, D.C. – say, during an event on the National Mall. As things stand, however, there’s no way for the public to know whether the threat has been diminished.

Fred Millar, who has served as a consultant on rail security to Friends of the Earth and the Council of the District of Columbia, said that railroad lobbyists "succeeded in getting a lot of secrecy injected into the 2007 law," arguing that disclosure about re-routing might aid would-be terrorists. In fact, Millar said, the U.S. freight rail system is "unsecured and un-securable. It’s completely wide open, as evidenced by the graffiti on many tank cars." The furtiveness allowed under rules issued by the FRA and a sister agency at the Department of Transportation, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, "means there’s no accountability," he said. “There’s no way to determine whether this law is working as intended."

In an e-mail to the Center for Public Integrity, FRA spokesman Robert Kulat wrote, "Railroads are required to seek input with local communities to evaluate local concerns and how they apply to overall safety and security." The FRA will review the railroads’ routing plans and demand changes if necessary, he said. However, the plans themselves won’t be made public. "Unfortunately," Kulat wrote, "we live in a world where there are people who would love to know the schedule, route and security measures in a chlorine shipment in order to cause massive destruction. Nothing good could come from this."

In a statement to the Center, the Association of American Railroads said, "The federal government has acknowledged that information that results from such route analyses will include sensitive information that should not be broadly disseminated.  However, railroads upon request provide local emergency response agencies with, at a minimum, a list of the top 25 hazardous materials transported through their communities. The Federal Railroad Administration also has a process in place that allows state and local governments to voice concerns about route selections and request an inspection of a route plan, security vulnerability or about the railroad."

Millar is unappeased. "It is nonsense to think that withholding the selected route information hinders any patient terrorist from finding out how huge, slow-moving, clearly placarded 90-ton chlorine cars are moving through our cities," he said. "It only hinders citizens and public officials from assessing whether the railroads’ secret re-routing decisions are now protecting major target cities as intended."

About the Data:

What: Analyses of hazardous cargo routes filed by freight railroads
Where: Federal Railroad Administration
Availability: Not available to the public
Format: N/A
Usability: N/A

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The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.