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Talking Points: The Toxic Terrorist Threat

The Bush administration and Congress must do more to protect Americans from the threat of terrorist attacks on railcars carrying chlorine gas.

Every year, massive railcars traverse 300,000 miles of freight railways, carrying highly toxic chlorine gas through almost all major American towns and cities. A Department of Homeland Security scenario drafted in 2004 estimated a large chlorine tank explosion on U.S. soil could lead to 17,500 deaths, 10,000 severe injuries and 100,000 hospitalizations. In a new report entitled “Toxic Trains and the Terrorist Threat,” the Center for American Progress surveyed water utilities that still receive chlorine gas by rail and utilities that have eliminated chlorine railcars by switching to a less hazardous disinfectant.

The analysis found that since 1999, some 25 water facilities that formerly received chlorine gas by rail have switched to safer and more secure water treatment options, such as liquid bleach or ultraviolet light. This conversion to safer alternatives for water treatment is the only way to protect neighborhoods and communities and get unnecessary toxic cargoes off the tracks. For the price of a single day’s expenditure on the war in Iraq, the United States could cover construction costs of converting the remaining water facilities off chlorine gas railcars.

  • The inadequate new DHS regulations threaten to preempt stronger state standards. Yesterday, the DHS released its long-awaited chemical plant security rules, marking the first “across-the-board” attempt to require companies to head off potential catastrophic terrorist attacks involving the theft or explosive release of toxic chemicals stored in densely populated urban areas. Under the new rules, local laws that “conflict with, interfere or frustrate” DHS regulations could be preempted — a slight softening of the position DHS took last December when it suggested state regulations would be broadly preempted by federal safety regulations. Because New Jersey has promulgated tougher chemical security rules than the Bush administration, the state has long argued that federal preemption would undermine state efforts to secure its citizens. The federal rules crafted by the Bush administration — which too often have catered to the chemical industry’s interests — “do not set a timetable for changes or require the industry to take specific measures, such as switching to less hazardous chemicals or ‘inherently safer technology,’ as New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine (D-NJ) has proposed.”
  • A comprehensive solution to the nation’s chemical terrorist threat must come at the federal level. Unfortunately, the administration has largely ignored the advice of experts that have called for a national strategy to address the security and safety dangers involved in the manufacture, use, and transportation of chlorine gas and hazardous chemicals. Just 37 drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities still receive chlorine gas by rail. More than 25 million Americans live in harm’s way near these facilities, while millions more live in cities and towns along the rail delivery routes. In the absence of administration efforts to create a national approach, Congress must step in and require chemical facilities to use cost-effective technologies to reduce or eliminate chemical hazards, target assistance to help water utilities convert from chlorine gas, and require chemical facilities to account for transportation risks in developing security assessments and plans.
  • There are safer alternatives to chlorine gas, and many water utilities are switching already. Since 1999, some 25 water utilities that formerly received chlorine gas by rail have switched to safer and more secure water treatment options, such as liquid bleach or ultraviolet light. These alternative treatment options eliminate the danger of a catastrophic toxic gas cloud. As a result, more than 26 million Americans who live near these facilities are safer and more secure. Of facilities that still receive rail shipments of chlorine gas, at least six drinking water and wastewater plants have definite plans to convert from chlorine gas to a more secure disinfectant. Cost estimates provided by 20 water facilities indicate that conversations at these facilities would cost no more than $1.50 per person each year. Put another way, a single day’s expenditure in Iraq could wean these 20 facilities off chlorine gas and help reduce the potential harm from a terrorist attack.