Local Officials in Louisiana in Dark About Chemicals on Trains

Railway officials do not publicize the types of dangerous chemicals that pass every day through communities like Lafayette, La., citing safety concerns in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.

But even first responders often don’t know what they’re facing when racing to an accident like the one May 17 that spilled hydrochloric acid and led to the evacuation of 3,000 residents.

Hazardous materials, including flammable gases and liquids, carried by train travel next to homes and businesses every day.

Lafayette Fire Chief Robert Benoit said on May 17 when six cars of a train derailed under the Ambassador Caffery Parkway overpass, firefighters only learned what had been spilled as they were rushing to the accident site.

Local officials can obtain a list of the top 25 substances transported through their community by written request, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said. But Louisiana state police and local Lafayette authorities say they have no need for the lists and no way to track individual shipments.

“We have absolutely zero regulation over railroads,” said Sgt. Markus Smith, Region 1 supervisor of Louisiana State Police public affairs unit. “We’re only involved when there’s a spill.”

Wilma Subra, a nationally recognized New Iberia environmentalist and chemist who serves on the Louisiana Emergency Response Commission, said she has tried unsuccessfully to obtain hazardous materials information from the railroads.

Subra said federal open records laws do not govern railroads and officials only have to tell residents what their trains are carrying in the event of a spill.

In the Lafayette spill, railroad officials identified the cargo carried by the six derailed tanker cars. Three carried hydrochloric acid, two carried fatty alcohols and one carried ethylene oxide.

The only way a resident can find out what hazardous material travels through their town is to sit by the track and write down numbers that appear on triangular placards that are required on trains carrying hazardous material, Subra said.

The numbers can be plugged into a searchable database called Cameo Chemicals for identification.

A spokesman says the Federal Railroad Administration is putting out new tank car safety standards and new rules for routing hazardous materials by rail.

“The vast majority of hazardous material transported by rail is transported safely,” FRA spokesman Warren Flatau said, noting the safety record of trains carrying hazardous material is better than that of trucks.

Information from: The Advertiser, www.acadiananow.com