Chlorine Trains Pose an Even Deadlier Threat Than Oil Trains

A new report finds the railroad cars that transport the toxic gas around the United States are vulnerable to accidents and sabotage.
A chlorine tanker car rolls through Luray, Virginia. (Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
Feb 8, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Much has been said about the dangers of oil trains following several high-profile accidents, including a fiery 2013 crash in Quebec that killed 50 people. Now a report from Greenpeace points to another potential hazard that could be even deadlier: chlorine trains.

Eighty-six plants across the United States use chlorine gas to produce bleach and repackage bulk chlorine gas for resale in smaller containers, the environmental group found. Most of that chlorine, a lethal toxin being used in weapons by the Syrian military and Islamic State fighters, is moved around the country by rail.

“These facilities often ship, receive, and store their chlorine gas in 90-ton railcars that are typically left unattended en-route or on site, making them vulnerable to accidents and acts of sabotage,” the report said. “These railcars crisscross the country delivering chlorine gas to facilities, endangering the communities through which they travel.”

The report estimated that one in five Americans—nearly 64 million people—live in “vulnerability zones” that are “in danger of a potential worst-case release of chlorine gas” from one of the 86 plants. It did not provide figures on the number of people who live near rail lines that carry the gas.

Acute exposure can cause severe coughing, wheezing, and fluid buildup in the lungs.

Whether on the rails, at a plant, or in a facility that stores large quantities of chlorine—to treat municipal sewage and drinking water, for example—the potential damage from an accident or a terror attack is enormous.

“Large-scale transport and storage close to urban centers could make [chlorine] an attractive target,” a 2010 U.S. Army study reported. “The use of chlorine could allow terrorists to deploy a chemical weapon in a highly populated area without having to manufacture or transport it themselves.

In one scenario, a large-scale release of chlorine could kill more than 17,000 people and hospitalize 100,000. “Despite this,” the Army report said, “many at-risk communities are unaware of the volume of chlorine that is transported through their area.”

That was likely the case in Graniteville, South Carolina, in 2005, when a railroad tanker carrying chlorine struck another train, rupturing a tank and spewing 90 tons of gas. Eight people died, and more than 520 were injured.

RELATED: Oil Trains Put 1 Million California Schoolchildren in Danger Zone

In its report, Greenpeace offered recommendations for reducing the 15 million tons of chlorine produced annually in the U.S. and shipped around the country.

For one, bleach factories and water-treatment plants can transition from chlorine gas to liquid bleach or produce their own chlorine on-site as needed through a salt-and-electricity process. Wastewater plants can also use ultraviolet light for disinfection.

“By generating chlorine ‘just-in-time,’ bleach plants remove the bulk storage of railcars of chlorine gas at their facilities, while also taking these hazardous railcars off the rail lines,” the report said.

Clorox, for example, has phased out the storage and use of chlorine railcars from seven U.S. facilities, and more than 550 drinking water and wastewater plants in 47 states switched to safer chemicals or processes, the Center for American Progress reported in 2010. As a result, “More than 40 million Americans are no longer in danger of harm from a terrorist-released or accidental toxic gas plume,” the group said.

Frank Reiner, president of the Chlorine Institute, dismissed the Greenpeace report and what he called “tired, alarmist arguments of the past.”

“Dramatic safety and security enhancements regarding the production and transportation of bleach and chlorine were undertaken after 9/11 as industry and government cooperated on new regulations, information and intelligence gathering, and sharing safer and best practices,” Reiner said in an email.

Greenpeace also called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require bleach facilities to adopt safer technologies wherever feasible when the agency issues its new risk management program next month.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency will review the Greenpeace report, adding that she could not comment on the risk management report before it is publicly released.

But Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace’s toxics campaign, said President Barack Obama supports safer technologies for the chemical industry, and the EPA has the authority to demand such a switch.

“This is a legacy issue for Obama, and the real risk here is the EPA going far astray,” Hind said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to show them the way to thread the needle.”

On the local level, he said concerned citizens should petition mayors and city councils in communities with “high-risk treatment plants” to convert those plants to safer technologies.

The conversion could save taxpayer dollars as well as lives. “About one-third of the treatment plants that have been converted are actually saving money,” Hind said.