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Week of 6.30.06

Action Steps: Hazardous Materials Transport

Citizens don't have to sit and wait in fear for a tragic accident or terrorist attack involving dangerous cargo. There are steps you can take to better educate yourselves and others with the goal of putting pressure on those who make and enforce the rules of transporting hazardous materials.

While "writing your congressman" often seems like a pointless exercise, real action can occur at the local level. According to Fred Millar, an expert on the transportation of hazardous materials, six cities have introduced local re-routing ordinances to decrease the amount of harm caused by accidents and attacks on trucks and trains carrying hazardous cargo. They are Cleveland; Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.

Here are some action steps worth considering:

1. Find out more about hazardous materials transport in your area. Contact the following for information on the extent and location of hazardous rail transportation in your area:

  • The Right to Know Network: The RKN provides access to environmental databases as well as the ability to search for toxic pollution in your area.
  • Your local railroad operators
  • Your local Fire Chief, Emergency Management Agency
  • Your Emergency Planning Committee: Raise the issue and find out if they know the volumes and worst case scenarios of the shipments. Ask if any agency reviews the chemical shippers and carriers' security plans.
  • Your local chemical company facility managers: You can get a list of chemical companies from your local Emergency Planning Committee's most recent plan. Millar suggests asking what they ship and receive and what they know about other shippers and carriers in the area. Ask each company if it has a policy for re-routing its hazardous cargoes around target cities. Under the community-right-to-know act, chemical plants are required to disclose their worst-case scenarios for accidents.

2. Put together a committee of citizens and organizations who assert their right to know what risks there are due to such the storage and transportation of hazardous materials in general. Strong members of the committee would be:

  • Emergency responders, including members of hazardous materials teams.
  • Hospitals with emergency rooms that might have to handle mass casualties.
  • School administrators, PTA members, and teachers.
  • Arenas, sports complexes or other facilities which host thousands of people.
  • Media professionals who know how to reach newspapers and local media outlets

3. Make demands on local officials for re-assessment of:

  • The "acceptable risk" for the community in a time of heightened terrorism risk awareness
  • Security measures and safety locations appropriate for the locale

4. Consider introducing an ordinance to your city or county council to reduce risk, including the re-routing of the most dangerous cargoes away from the most sensitive areas. Millar advocates such the following strategy:

  • Once you have learned about the issue, have the facts at hand, and have a group of allies to support your cause, introduce the proposed ordinance.
  • After the ordinance is introduced, a public hearing is likely. If a public hearing is scheduled, arrange for strong witnesses to testify and rally supporters to attend the hearing.
  • The issue will then move to a vote. It is a separate political decision to go forward with enactment of the ordinance. Millar says it is likely that the railroad will threaten the city with a lawsuit.

If you have any questions about other things you can do please visit our feedback page and send us an email.

For more information, see "Railcar Hazmats Storage: Reducing Risk in a Time of Terrorism," Fred Millar.