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Hazardous materials pass daily -- and no one knows

The train derailment and fire in the heart of Baltimore’s downtown Wednesday alerted the public to an open secret among those in the know: Every day, by rail, by truck and by ship, hundreds of thousands of gallons of hazardous chemicals pass through the city.

But no one -- not even those who would have to respond to an accident -- knows what dangerous materials are crossing the city at any given time, though many shipments carry the potential for disaster.

For instance, the train that derailed two days ago might have been transporting the gas used in death chambers -- hydrogen cyanide -- a not uncommon shipment on Baltimore’s rails.

Or highly flammable propane, perhaps the most typical hazardous cargo in this area. Or chlorine, which could send a toxic plume more than 25 miles downwind if a single 90-ton rail car ruptured.

Federal agencies regulate the types of containers that hold these chemicals, the safety devices and signs on them and, in some cases, each car’s proximity to other chemicals on a train.

But no one monitors the types and quantities of chemicals passing through Baltimore or anywhere else in the country. And no agency requires that communities be forewarned of such shipments.

It is an information gap that citizens groups have long fought to close in the interest of better emergency planning.

"There is no federal agency that does a good job of tracking hazardous materials," said Paul Orum, director of Community Right to Know, a Washington-based group. "People have a right to know if they can be hurt or injured by materials on rails or roads or on barges."

Manufacturing plants and other facilities that keep hazardous chemicals on site must draft a worst-case accident scenario to let communities know the potential consequences for nearby schools, hospitals and neighborhoods. But no similar requirement exists for chemicals in transit.

"As with so many of the environmental laws, these are the kinds of issues that come to public attention in response to disasters," said Bradley Campbell, former Mid-Atlantic administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. "This is not one where there is a lot of attention, in part because the safety record, particularly for rail, has been pretty good."

Maryland has experienced nearly 5,000 hazardous spills during transit over the last 30 years, with the annual number increasing over the past decade. About 3,500 occurred on highways; only 217 on railways.

Federal rail officials said Thursday that 2 million tank-car loads of hazardous materials were shipped nationwide last year, with 35 train accidents resulting in the release of dangerous chemicals.

Alerting communities in advance, they said, could have a dangerous result -- inadvertently informing someone interested in sabotage or terrorism.

"The key is to get the appropriate information to the emergency crews as soon as it’s determined there is an emergency," said George Gavalla, safety director for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Within 15 minutes of being called Wednesday, the Fire Department knew the contents of the train, including caustic acids that can cause severe burns and lung damage.

Still, such information falls short, said Assistant Chief Michael Dalton. "What the manifest doesn’t tell you is what can happen if the tankers rupture and the chemicals mix," he said. "Then the whole picture changes. It can create its own witches’ brew and there wouldn’t even be a chemical name for it."

The fire marshal is routinely notified about the shipment of explosives, Dalton said. "But a lot of chemicals are far more hazardous under the right conditions than a boxcar full of dynamite."

In this case, the risk of a lethal mix was low because most of the chemicals involved are acids, rather than a heat-generating and potentially explosive mix of acids and alkalis, officials said.

For the century-old, 1.7-mile Howard Street Tunnel, there is no restriction on the types of chemicals that may be transported through. About two dozen trains pass through it daily, according to CSX; a similar number, including Amtrak passenger trains, use a 1.3-mile tunnel west of Pennsylvania Station.

"In an open area in the Midwest, you can stand back at a safe distance," Dalton said. "This incident was inside a tunnel, and we had no idea even if any chemical was involved or if all of them mixed. That’s what makes this kind of incident so dangerous."

Among the few restrictions that exist in the state are those of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages toll facilities and places its highway tunnels in a special category.

In the Baltimore area, potentially dangerous materials are more likely to travel over the Francis Scott Key Bridge (Interstate 695) than through the Fort McHenry Tunnel or Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.

The authority prohibits bulk gasoline, explosives, and large bottles of propane from the tunnels. Police conduct random checks of tankers and other vehicles. Trucks carrying such substances would be sent instead over the Key Bridge. Vehicles carrying high explosives or radioactive materials are required to have a police escort as they cross.

Potentially dangerous materials can also enter the city by air or sea. The Maryland Port Administration said it issued 120 permits last year to shipping companies to bring in explosives and radioactive materials at the Port of Baltimore.

Many other substances, including poisons and flammable liquids, are permitted in the port without prior notification or regulation, though some may be monitored by the Coast Guard or other agencies.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration oversees the packaging and shipping of hazardous cargo. But the rules are frequently violated nationally. The FAA has sought civil penalties a dozen times this year against airlines or businesses for hazardous materials violations related to the shipment of gasoline, certain types of fungus, corrosives and other substances.

Federal law requires states to have plans for dealing with chemical emergencies. In Maryland, each county and Baltimore City have committees that are supposed to gather information on chemical hazards and draw up plans for handling accidents.

But preparation varies widely, said Alan Brown, chemical emergency preparedness coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office. In Baltimore, "the local emergency planning committee is for the most part manned by volunteers, and they don’t have any authority to tell anybody not to transport a certain chemical down I-95," he said.

The Fire Department is the lead agency responsible for chemical-emergency planning, though the state Department of the Environment, community activists and representatives of local chemical plants also participate.

MDE spokesman John Verrico said the Fire Department recently practiced responding to a train accident in a tunnel, but MDE’s hazardous materials team was not part of that drill.

Brooklyn activist Doris McGuigan, who serves on the city’s emergency planning committee, said the group discussed the dangers of tunnels about four months ago.

"The reason it came up is we were doing a segment on terrorist attacks," she said. "I know they were very concerned about it.

"I didn’t even know we had tunnels," said McGuigan, a lifelong resident. "I said, ‘Let’s get some maps,’ and that’s as far as we got." <

McGuigan, who has been critical of local emergency planning, said there have been improvements in the level of preparedness. In 1998, the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic threatened to sue the planning committee, which rarely met and had a decade-old emergency plan.

Since then, the committee has updated its plan, and "they’re working really hard," she said.

"They handled the evacuation fine," McGuigan said, but communication with people driving into the city was less successful.

City officials "need to do some PR work about the fact that when something like this happens, [citizens] really need to pay attention to what they’re told. It can save their lives."

Sun staff writers Jeff Barker and Mike Himowitz contributed to this article.

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