If the railroads were hoping the furor over hazmat rail shipments might die down over the summer, those hopes were dashed last month. On July 6, a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in Hershey, Pa. In all, 13 cars derailed, one of them a 90-ton tanker carrying chlorine gas, one of the most hazardous chemicals transported via rail.
The derailment came at a time when cities across the country are considering measures to ban hazmat rail shipments within their borders for safety reasons. Right now, the Washington, D.C., city council is locked in a legal battle with rail carrier CSX over the city council's attempts to prohibit shipments of certain hazardous materials from coming within a 2.2-mile radius of the Capitol. Similar initiatives have surfaced in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and Las Vegas.
Although it's unclear whether the Pennsylvania derailment will have any effect on the debate over local bans, it's unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. "This is an opportunity for people in office to get coverage for the topic, so I wouldn't be surprised if we hear about it on Capitol Hill," says Lawrence Bierlein, a partner with McCarthy, Sweeney & Harkaway, P.C., a Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in hazardous materials transportation. "It's to be expected, but I don't think it will speed up [the court decision] or slow things down."
In the meantime, the incident has prompted rail workers to sound the alarm on rail safety. The day after the derailment, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) issued a statement saying the incident demonstrated the vulnerability of the nation's rail system. "It doesn't take much imagination to see how hazardous material shipped by rail is a prime moving target for a potential terrorist attack," says Ken Kertesz, chairman of the BLET's legislative board. "The [threat] to rail employees, passengers, first responders and the community is obvious."