Analysis & Opinions - Power & Policy Blog

Dangerous Cargo: Action Needed on Hazardous Materials

| June 13, 2013

The wisdom of transporting hazardous materials by rail through our towns and cities is a topic on the mind of many Massachusetts residents. On May 23rd, the Boston Globe reported ("Residents north of Boston call for halt of ethanol rail plan") on the ongoing debate over a proposal by Global Partners LP, a petroleum company, to begin receiving rail shipments of ethanol at their Revere storage facility. Under the proposal, ethanol would be shipped on MBTA tracks and move through parts of Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, and Somerville. Ethanol is highly flammable. If the train carrying ethanol derailed, many people could be injured or killed.

In response to the concerns of local residents, State Senators from Everett, Somerville, and East Boston, introduced an amendment that would effectively block the proposed shipments. But even if these ethanol shipments are blocked, an even more serious danger involving rail shipments of even more dangerous industrial products will remain. Railcars carrying more dangerous materials go through Massachusetts every day.

The dangers of transporting hazardous materials were recently—and vividly—made clear. On May 28th a freight train collided with a garbage truck just outside of Baltimore, MD. The train caught fire and released a massive explosion, shaking homes and businesses five miles away. The fire burned for hours. Although investigators are still sorting out the details of the case, the explosion appears to have been caused by sodium chlorate, one of the hazardous materials carried by the train. The accident is a reminder that transporting hazardous materials, despite best efforts, remains risky. Fortunately, Tuesday's accident was relatively minor. Only one individual—the driver of the garbage truck—was badly injured in the accident. The accident could have been much worse.

Our research at Harvard Kennedy School, in collaboration with the University of California, San Diego and George Mason University, has studied the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials and made recommendations on how these risks could be reduced.  Most importantly, we studied the dangers of rail accidents involving what are known as Toxic Inhalation Hazards (TIH), such as chlorine. TIH are a particularly dangerous subset of hazardous materials. An accident involving TIH could be far worse than the recent accident outside of Baltimore or an accident involving ethanol. TIH have the potential to injure or kill thousands.

These dangers have been known for some time. In 2005, then-Senator Joe Biden referred to rail shipments of toxic materials as "rolling weapons of mass destruction."  As accidents in Graniteville, SC, Macdona, TX, Minot, ND, and elsewhere illustrate, the risks of transporting hazardous materials are real. Confronting these risks is not a simple task.

Policymakers and industry leaders face a difficult challenge. Hazardous materials are widely-used to purify water, produce industrial products, and support agriculture. It is true that, statistically, rail shipments of hazardous materials are overwhelmingly safe. The Association of American Railroads reports that an astounding 99.9% of all hazardous materials shipped by rail arrive at their destination without incident. Yet, though infrequent, accidents remain an unavoidable fact of life. Despite some important steps taken by railroads and government regulators to make rail transport safer, rail accidents remain a stubborn reality.

The threat of terrorism complicates matters even further. In April, two men in Canada were arrested for plotting an attack on rail lines near Toronto. In the US, homeland security officials have warned that shipments of hazardous materials are an attractive terrorist target. What can be done?

Massachusetts can act through its own laws, but a sustainable long-term fix depends on Executive and Congressional action. Preventing shipments of hazardous materials is a temporary solution to a long-standing problem. Fortunately, there are ways to lessen our reliance on the transportation of hazardous materials. For many industrial processes, safer substitutes exist. Many water utilities have replaced chlorine with less toxic alternatives. When substitutes are not available, co-locating the production of hazardous materials near the industrial facilities which require their use can reduce the risks associated with hazmat transportation. Promoting the use of safer technologies—calling for the use of less dangerous alternatives when possible and co-location where attractive—offers a way of combating the safety and security challenges of transporting hazardous materials.

Ryan Ellis is a Post-doctoral Fellow with Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Lewis M. Branscomb is Prof. emeritus of Public Policy and Corporate Management at Harvard Kennedy School  and Distinguished Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Conflict and Cooperation, University of California San Diego.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Branscomb, Lewis and Ryan Ellis.“Dangerous Cargo: Action Needed on Hazardous Materials.” Power & Policy Blog, June 13, 2013.

The Authors

Lewis M. Branscomb