Keeping safety on the right track

Aug. 17, 2006
The chemical industry has, in general, an amazingly good track record on safety. Outside of those plants, however, can be another story.

Maybe we don’t talk about it often enough, but the chemical industry has, in general, an amazingly good track record on safety. Considering the scale of production, the hazardous nature of many of its products, and the physical and chemical complexity of its processes, the industry deserves widespread recognition and congratulations for its commitment to the safety of its plants. Outside of those plants, however, can be another story. While the industry certainly is concerned about what happens to its products once they pass through the plant gates — “Responsible Care” is very much a lifecycle-centered approach to product stewardship, after all — problems can sometimes arise where the industry interacts with other industries and government agencies that might have different perspectives on safety.

Take the issue of rail tank-car safety, for example. At the end of May, two Department of Transportation (DOT) bodies, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, held a public meeting to get input on the design of and standards for tank cars carrying hazardous materials, particularly those known as toxic-by-inhalation (TIH) commodities.

The meeting was, in a way, part of the DOT’s follow-up to the rail crash in January 2005 at Graniteville, S.C., when chlorine gas was released from ruptured tank cars and nine people were killed — the third fatal rail accident involving TIH materials since 2002. The DOT is under pressure from Congress to improve tank-car standards.

At the meeting, Bob Fronczak, assistant vice president for environment and hazardous materials at the Association of American Railroads (AAR), Washington, D.C., noted that the freight rail industry is looking at new standards that could be implemented quite quickly. He cited research by the University of Illinois, Chicago, that suggests that, with existing technology, the likelihood of a release of TIH materials such as chlorine or anhydrous ammonia can be cut by 65% or more simply by replacing the current 263,000-lb tank cars with heavier 286,000-lb units modified with thicker shells and better head and top-fittings protection.

However, representatives of the chemical industry voiced opposition. “We have been working with the AAR to further the safe transportation of anhydrous ammonia,” said Joe Giesler of nitrogen fertilizer producer Terra Industries, Sioux City, Iowa, on behalf of the Fertilizer Institute, Washington, D.C., “but we disagree with the stance the railroads have taken by trying to impose a new tank-car design without regard for its impact on overall safety. The AAR’s deadline for a decision [on new designs and standards] by September and expectation that these new cars be on line in the next 5 to 7 years is unrealistic and does not consider other factors that have contributed to rail accidents.” Giesler suggested that heavier cars will prompt a “significant increase in truck shipments” because many facilities won’t be able to receive the tank cars because of track restrictions. Heavier cars also will lead to higher transportation costs for ammonia shippers, he added.

The Chlorine Institute, Arlington, Va., also doesn’t want to be rushed into accepting new car designs. Its vice president of transportation and emergency preparedness, Frank Reiner, called on the DOT to undertake a risk/benefit analysis of any proposed enhancement to tank cars. The institute has begun its own engineering study of chlorine rail-car design and plans to share the results on their completion this summer.

The overall opinion of the chemical industry was summed up by Thomas Schick, senior director for distribution at the American Chemistry Council, Arlington, Va. “ACC strongly supports a comprehensive, multi-stakeholder review of the complex and interrelated aspects of hazardous materials tank-car safety, including design and operational issues,” he said at the DOT meeting.
In particular, the industry wants to wait for the results, expected early next year, of congressionally mandated research underway at the Pueblo, Colo., rail-testing facility of the DOT’s own Volpe National Transportation Center.

Broad consensus is certainly needed. The railroad industry is crucial to the movement of chemicals around the country. It can’t afford to run the risk of driving good customers away by introducing standards at odds with those of an industry that knows a thing or two about safety.

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