BALTIMORE -- The iron horse that rumbled through America's cities in the early 1800s carried grain, cows and coal. Today, it's carrying acids, corrosives and combustibles.
Freight trains like the one that derailed last week in a 106-year-old downtown Baltimore tunnel and spilled hazardous materials run through densely populated areas all the time. Unbeknownst to most people, they carry chlorine for water treatment plants and ammonia for plastics and pesticides. Sometimes, they carry nuclear waste.
"I would say people are pretty much clueless," said Steven Moss, a consultant for Railwatch, a railroad watchdog group. "I think they tend to have a charming, antiquated view of farming products at best and coal at worst."
The CSX derailment in Baltimore sparked a fire that raged for five days beneath a major intersection, burning so hot at times that metal on the rail cars glowed. But it wasn't the flames that prompted officials to halt traffic into the city for hours and postpone three Baltimore Orioles games.
It was the cargo, which included hydrochloric acid, 5,000 gallons of which spilled before workers began pumping it out. The train also carried tripropylene, a combustible lubricant similar to paint thinner, and hydrofluoric acid, a corrosive used in making gasoline.
The derailment was unusual. The shipment was not.
CSX said 26 freight trains run through Baltimore on an average day. Some days, all of them carry hazardous materials.
"This is basically, believe it or not, considered routine transport," said John Verrico, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment.
And not just in Baltimore. Trainloads of hazardous materials cut through metropolitan Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Many cities, after all, grew up around the railroads.
"Rail tracks almost by definition run through densely populated areas," Moss said. "Probably every major city has a train running 10 to 20 miles from it with hazardous materials."
The Federal Railway Administration says there are no federal regulations telling the rail industry which kinds of hazardous materials can be transported where.
Federal officials say 2 million tanker loads of hazardous materials were shipped last year, with 35 accidents releasing dangerous chemicals.
"It's the safest way of moving hazardous material in this country," said Chuck Dettmann, executive vice president of safety and operations at the Association of American Railroads trade group.
The Coast Guard's National Response Center keeps a database on railroad oil and chemical spills, from minor gas leaks to major chemical runoffs. Since 1990, there have been 64 such incidents in Baltimore. There were 196 in both Chicago and New York and 110 in Los Angeles.
No one was seriously injured in Baltimore. But three factory workers were killed, nine injured and hundreds evacuated July 14 when a rail car filled with methyl mercaptan exploded at a chemical plant in Riverview, Mich.
After the wreck in Baltimore, the Coast Guard tested water in the Inner Harbor, which briefly registered an acidic level. And environmental officials monitored the air for days, declaring it safe each time.
However, the city's 440-page emergency plan had no provisions for accidents involving chemicals in transit.
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