Though Baltimore's emergency planners have long known that a devastating chemical accident could occur in the train tunnel under Howard Street, the city's 440-page emergency plan does not address such a problem and never mentions the tunnel.
The plan, required by federal law, has no provision for responding to chemical accidents involving trucks or trains, even though city Fire Marshal William E. Martin said yesterday: "Most of my worry is about transportation accidents, because they can happen anywhere."
Last week, that worry became reality, when a 60-car CSX freight train hauling toxic chemicals derailed, setting off a disastrous domino effect: a fire that burned under a downtown street for days, a water main break and a spill of caustic hydrochloric acid that stymied firefighters' efforts to douse the blaze.
Mayor Martin O'Malley praised firefighters' courage, saying in a letter Tuesday that the department "helped Baltimore navigate this crisis without the loss of a single life. There is no clearer indication of our success."
Yet, O'Malley added: "It is not a question of if, but when ... Baltimore will again be confronted with comparable challenges." He said the Fire Department needs to answer several "fundamental questions," including: "Were we adequately prepared to respond to this crisis?"
Fire officials are already at work on an accident post-mortem, Martin said.
Gene Reynolds, a chemical safety expert at FMC Corp. in Fairfield and an emergency planner here for 18 years, said local officials never devised a plan for combating an accident in the tunnel because they thought a fire there would burn itself out. And if toxic gas were to seep from the tunnel, they thought that it could not be effectively contained.
The plan - drafted in 1987 - devotes two of 440 pages to the risk of chemicals spilling or burning on roads or railways. It includes no highway or rail maps, no assessment of accident-prone intersections and no list of chemicals traveling through the city or the routes that they take.
Federal grants are available to improve the city's preparedness, but city officials were unaware of that until told yesterday by The Sun.
Experts who reviewed the plan at The Sun's request said it has many other shortcomings.
"It's not very sophisticated," said Fred Millar, a nationally known expert on hazardous materials transportation and former head of hazard analysis for the District of Columbia's emergency planning committee. "Nothing in here relates to the worst-case scenario."
Martin, a city fire chief and head of the volunteer Local Emergency Planning Committee that prepared the report, acknowledged yesterday that the plan has large gaps.
For example, in most chemical emergencies people are instructed to "shelter in place," closing windows and turning off air conditioners to keep out toxic fumes. But most of the city's schools, hospitals and nursing homes have no plan for such action, and officials don't know which buildings are airtight enough to be safe.
Martin said that information would improve the chances of getting through another accident without serious injuries or deaths.
'Don't have the resources'
"If the chief [top administrator Carl E. McDonald] relieved me of all my other responsibilities and said, ... 'Here's a blank check. Do what you need to. Get it done,' I could improve this plan drastically," said Martin. "But we don't have the resources."
The federal Emergency Preparedness and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 requires states and cities to plan for chemical accidents, including ones that occur on roads and railways. But neither the federal government nor the city provides money to pay for the work, which is mostly done by volunteers, Martin said.
"You've heard of unfunded federal mandates? Well, this is one," Martin said. At meetings, "either I buy the doughnuts or [Capt. George Clinton] buys the doughnuts out of our own pocket. We're trying to do the best we can with what we have."
Martin's complaint about lack of funding upset Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, whose 7th District abuts Mount Royal Station at the north end of the tunnel.
"What's his number? I'll call him right now," said Cummings, a Democrat who sits on the House Transportation Committee and its railroad subcommittee. "We've got to sit down and figure out exactly what we must have ... and then go after the dollars."
Martin, who helped coordinate the city's response to the train derailment, said that in four round-the-clock days at the accident site, he never opened the chemical accident plan. He didn't need to, he said - the planning process had already brought together experts from government and private industry, so fire officials knew where to turn for help.
In spite of its faults, the plan has "served our purposes," Martin said, pointing to the fact that no one was seriously injured.
But he acknowledged that with a different mix of chemicals, the accident could have been deadly.
"Had things turned really bad, then we would have turned to it," Martin said of the plan.
Plan criticized earlier
The city's chemical accident plan has been criticized before. In 1998, the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic filed a notice of intent to sue several chemical companies for failing to meet requirements of the federal emergency planning law by not furnishing information about their facilities.
Clinic attorneys noted that Baltimore's plan was a decade old and that its planning committee hadn't met in years. Within weeks, the companies supplied the information, the committee issued an updated report, and it resumed regular meetings.
Yet Martin said the committee's report only identified one trouble spot - Wagner's Point, a now-demolished South Baltimore neighborhood surrounded by chemical plants - but not the Howard Street Tunnel, in spite of planners' misgivings about it.
"We started talking about it and we were trying to obtain some maps of the tunnel, and at that point I don't recall what happened," Martin said.
Reynolds, the FMC executive, said planners reasoned that a fire in the tunnel wouldn't get much fresh air, so it would eventually burn itself out. There is no way to control other types of accidents, such as a tanker rupture that spews deadly fumes, he said.
"We recognized very early that a fire would be self-limiting," Reynolds said. "What we have been unable to deal with are those things that don't burn - your chlorines and so on. Nobody has come up with a satisfactory answer."
Planners say they still don't know what chemicals move through the tunnel.
"It's safe to assume" that many of the most dangerous chemicals pass through it, Reynolds said, except for gasoline, which travels in cars wider than the tunnel allows.
Federal funds available
Martin said the Local Emergency Planning Committee never considered conducting a survey of the chemicals traveling through the tunnel because there was no money to do so.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation has "well over $12 million" in grant money available for chemical accident planning, said Patricia Klinger, an agency spokeswoman. The money can be used for surveys to map the flow of dangerous chemicals through a community, she said.
Experts say such surveys can be done for as little as $5,000.
The surveys often lead to decisions to reroute the most dangerous chemicals away from the most vulnerable areas, Millar said.
"It's not a radical idea, it's just economically inconvenient for the companies," he said. City planners are "just being complacent."
Brooklyn community activist Doris McGuigan, who has served on the emergency planning committee for the past five years, said the group ought to consider rerouting some shipments.
"If you can't carry a tank of propane gas [through] the Harbor Tunnel, why are we shipping hazardous materials [through] a railroad tunnel?" she asked.
Experts who reviewed the plan said the document is vague and inaccurate, and understates some risks. For example, said Paul Orum of the nonprofit group Community Right to Know, the city's plan states that every chemical listed has the same danger zone: a circle 8 miles wide.
In fact, Orum said, some of the chemicals can inflict harm much farther from an accident site. A spill of a single 180,000-pound chlorine rail car can poison people more than 25 miles away, according to the Chlorine Institute, an industry think tank.
But even smaller-scale accidents projected in the city's plan can have devastating effects. For instance, FMC's agricultural chemical plant reported a 16-mile danger zone for a hypothetical leak of anhydrous hydrogen chloride, which can burn eyes, skin and lungs. The company estimates that 1.7 million people in the city and surrounding counties live within the danger zone.
The federal government has recently required chemical companies to prepare more detailed reports about accident risks, in order to improve planning.
Martin said city planners have some of those reports, but have not used them to refine the plan because of a lack of money and time.
In other cities
Other cities have found ways around the money crunch. In Arizona, the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County emergency planning committee got government approval to raise money from donations and collect fees from toxic cleanups.
Experts say Baltimore's lack of preparedness for many kinds of chemical accidents is far from unique. Comprehensive plans exist in only a handful of places - in communities such as Charleston, W.Va., and Iberville Parish, La., where chemical plants are clustered.
"Baltimore has got some of the major chemical companies in the country," Millar said. "You have the potential here for major chemical industry leadership. ... These companies have beaucoup resources to do a wonderful job."Copyright © 2015, CT Now