One Year Later: What Have We Learned From the Baltimore Train Tunnel Disaster?

Large volumes of chlorine and other potentially lethal substances are being shipped through highly populated areas such as the Baltimore tunnel adjacent to Camden Yards and Harborplace. Greenpeace wants this stopped.

A Report from Greenpeace
July 18th marks the first anniversary of the Baltimore Tunnel train fire that paralyzed the city for days. To commemorate this date, Greenpeace, Clean Water Action and other Baltimore area groups held a press conference on the lessons learned from this disaster and highlighted the continuing threats posed by future accidents and possible terrorist attacks.

Since last year, communities such as Baltimore have gone from experiencing the hazards of shipping highly toxic substances through populated areas to the more startling threats posed by terrorist attacks. A newly leaked EPA report, "Lessons Learned in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001" noted that:

"Two specific incidents where security was a specific concern were identified: (1) railroads did not want to ship chlorine in tankers after attacks... (2) EPA received requests to reroute chemical tankers and trucks away from the population centers." Additional leaked documents from EPA show a dramatic reversal in policy by the EPA. While two of these documents express the need for legislation, one outlines a proposal very similar to a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last October by Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ). However, EPA's latest document says that they are "not seeking legislation on chemical security at this time." This abrupt reversal is what the chemical industry has been lobbying for.

Not everyone in the U.S. Senate agrees, however. Senator Cozine has proposed a bill (S.1602), also known as the Chemical Security Act. Without a prevention program at the EPA similar to his bill, he says and Greenpeace concurs, the pending Homeland Security legislation would fail to protect thousands of communities located near hazardous chemical facilities.

Following last July's Baltimore tunnel fire, Greenpeace urged the EPA to conduct dioxin testing in and around the tunnel fire site to determine if nearby residents were exposed (read our letter to EPA). Finally, on July 27, 2001, the EPA did conduct such tests, but only collected 3 samples. Greenpeace had recommended that 25 to 30 samples be taken, as the EPA has done in previous investigations.

The delay in sampling, Greenpeace maintains, may have seriously compromised the accuracy of how much dioxin was released from the fire, because heavy rain occurred before EPA took the samples.

The EPA did find elevated levels of dioxin, at 25 to 150 times average soil "background" levels. The results were:

These results are strong evidence that dioxin was produced and released during the July 18 train tunnel fire, probably as a result of leakage of chlorine-based hydrochloric acid from the derailed tank cars.

In the wake of this railroad spill, Greenpeace called on the US Department of Transportation to ban the transport of hazardous materials through populated areas. In addition, Greenpeace is calling for the phase-out of the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine, to eliminate many of the worst hazards.

The public can check out the Right-to-Know Network's listing of "Risk Management Plan" executive summaries, including "worst case" accident scenarios submitted by chemical manufacturers and users. Eighteen thousand facilities are required to submit these report to the U.S. EPA. See www.rtknet.org.

The U.S. EPA's Vulnerable Zone Indicator System (VZIS) allows the public to search addresses--home, place of work, or child's school, for example--to learn how it could be affected by a chemical accident. See www.epa.gov.

Also visit the U.S. Department of Transportation's website alert on the transport of hazardous materials. See http://hazmat.dot.gov.

For more information about Greenpeace, see http://www.greenpeaceusa.org.

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This story was published on August 7, 2002.