Hearing Puts Freight Rail Hazmat Obligation in Spotlight

A packed public hearing is likely tomorrow when an obscure federal regulatory body, the Surface Transportation Board, opens a two-day examination of the common carrier obligation of railroads. So many speakers lined up that the board added Friday's session, and the list is impressive: three members of Congress and representatives of the nation's biggest freight railroads and chemical companies, state agencies, grain and coal shippers, and utilities crowd the agenda, with everyone limited to five, 10, or 15 minutes (except the congressmen, who are allotted 20 minutes apiece).

The three STB members, all appointed by President George W. Bush, will use the hearing to explore several aspects of railroads' obligations, including cost and safety impacts of their obligation to carry hazmats, especially toxic inhalation hazards (TIHs). The president of the Association of American Railroads, Edward Hamberger, is scheduled to testify Thursday, and he has raised the obligation repeatedly recently while urging the chemical industry to work harder on safer substitutes for their most hazardous products, such as chlorine. The STB's notice of the hearing did not suggest the obligation might be relaxed or removed, but some stakeholders fear the railroads are seeking this kind of relief: Jennifer Gibson, government and public affairs vice president for the National Association of Chemical Distributors, submitted written testimony to STB on April 17 that said in part, "NACD strongly urges the federal government to maintain the common carrier obligation of the railroads." She said chemical distributors and manufacturers "depend on rail service to send and receive shipments of certain hazardous materials as safety as possible" and added that rail is the safest, most efficient way to move TIH materials including chlorine and anhydrous ammonia. She also said the federal government should not shift potential liability for chemical releases from railroads to shippers for two reasons: Railroads are highly profitable today and don't need relief, and transferring liability elsewhere would reduce the railroads' incentive to enhance the safety of their operations.

STB is the successor agency to the Interstate Commerce Commission. Administratively located within the Department of Transportation, STB has jurisdiction over railroad rate and service issues and rail restructuring transactions including mergers, and it has jurisdiction over some trucking company and moving van rates. The board's members are Chairman Chip Nottingham, Vice Chairman Francis Mulvey, and Member W. Douglas Buttrey.

Meanwhile, another DOT agency announced a rule just last week ago that will require railroads to route trains carrying Poison Inhalation Hazard commodities, including chlorine and anhydrous ammonia, on the safest and most secure routes. Beginning June 1, railroads must conduct safety and security risk analyses of their primary routes and any practicable alternative routes over which they have authority to operate -- and the analysis must consider information provided by local communities and at least 27 risk factors such as trip length, volume and type of hazmat being moved, existing safety measures along the route, and population density. The rule says railroads must implement their routing decisions based on the analyses by September 2009.

"This strong measure better ensures that rail shipments of hazardous materials will reach their final destinations safely and without incident," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. "Stronger hazmat tank cars moving on the safest and most secure rail routes will enhance safety for people living in big cities and rural towns all across America."

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