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Trains Bring Toxic Targets Through Midstate

2005 Graniteville, SC chlorine spill. 2005 Graniteville, SC chlorine spill.
2005 Graniteville, SC chlorine spill. 2005 Graniteville, SC chlorine spill.

(Story created: 11/14/06)

A NewsChannel 5 investigation first raised concerns that deadly chemicals at Metro's sewage treatment plant could become a toxic target.

But, every day, chemicals just as deadly move through the Midstate's neighborhoods -- a lot right through downtown Nashville -- by train.

That's how some experts fear the next attack on America could be delivered.

"These are cargoes the federal government calls weapons of mass destruction," says homeland security consultant Fred Millar.

They are cargoes that, like chlorine tankers spotted by NewsChannel 5 passing through Nashville, are clearly marked: "inhalation hazard."

"It should have a skull and crossbones -- a big skull and crossbones -- on the wide of these tank cars with big letters that say poison gas," Millar says.

Last year, 10 people died, choked to death, as a result of a chlorine release in rural Graniteville, South Carolina. Hundreds more were injured.

But it's what those hazardous materials could do in the middle of a congested American city that worries homeland security officials.

"They are produced in truly massive quantities, shipped and stored in many cases next to very dense urban populations and present, in my opinion, the single greatest danger of a potential terrorist attack in our country today," former Bush administration official Richard Falkenrath told Congress.

Four years ago, the FBI warned that al Qaeda may be "targeting hazardous material containers."

It added, "Recently captured al Qaeda photographs of U.S. railroad engines, cars and crossings heighten the intelligence community's concern of this threat."

Millar says, "We are putting a lot of people at enormous risk by transporting huge poison gas cargoes through our target cities."

Using Sky 5, we took Millar -- who helped Washington, D.C., develop its homeland security plans -- up to survey the risk that Nashville faces.

From the air, we spotted chlorine tankers scattered across the city -- one in Radnor Yard just south of downtown.

There were also tankers of the deadly sulfur dioxide, as well as anhydrous ammonia. One was parked right off of Nolensville Road.

Add to that tankers of liquid propane gas  -- the highly explosive chemical that leveled much of downtown Waverly nearly 30 years ago -- and poison gases whose names are almost unpronounceable.

"The cargoes go right through downtown, Miller notes. "In fact, they sort of circle, loop around downtown in Nashville.  They go right next to all of your major buildings."

Perhaps most alarming: in the shadow of the state Capitol and other downtown buildings, a white, chlorine tanker sat completely unattended for more than two hours.

"A cloud could inundate this whole area," Millar adds.

On the ground, we found a disturbing example: two tankers filled with ammonia, right next to a tanker filled with chlorine.

We didn't see any sign of security out here. So if we had a bomb that we wanted to strap to the tankers, we didn't see anyone who could stop us.

Tennessee homeland security official Mike Zelnick says, as disturbing as scenes like this may be, the best defense is that terrorists may not be able to predict such shipments.

"I don't know if they are sending empty tankers and full tankers through there, so the enemy never knows which ones are full and which ones are empty," Zelnick says.

Still, the railroad industry told Congress that summer that it's "betting the business" with these sorts of toxic shipments.

"Every time a railroad moves one of these shipments, it faces potentially ruinous liability," railroad lobbyist Ed Hamberger told Congress.

The railroads want to be relieved of the liability if something does happen.

"We really have to reroute these hazardous cargoes away from our target populations," Millar says.

Millar was behind a law passed by the D.C. city council that requires railroads to ship such cargoes around the city -- a law the industry has now managed to tie up in the courts.

"If we don't reroute," he adds, "we are virtually prepositioning these cargoes right in our target cities for the benefit of the terrorists."

And Millar says that means the railroads are not only betting the business, they're also gambling with the lives of Americans every day.

The homeland security consultant says several other cities have joined Washington, D.C., in introducing legislation that would require railroads to reroute these dangerous chemicals around the most populated areas.

The railroads say it's not practical, but Millar says that's nonsense. He says he fears it may take a disaster to convince the railroads that it's worth the effort.


Federal Bureau of Investigation:
Al-Qaeda "targeting hazardous material containers," trains (October 2002)
U.S. Government Accountability Office:
"Rail Safety and Security" (April 2003)
Public Citizen:
"Hazardous Materials Unsecured"
Workers Warn of Security Gaps (September 2005)
Congressional Testimony:
Transcript, House Subcommittee on Railroads (June 2006)
Railroad Industry Statement, Subcommittee on Railroads (June 2006)
Chemical Industry Statement, Subcommittee on Railroads (June 2006)
Richard Falkenrath, Senate Committee on Homeland Security (April 2005)
Washington, D.C., Council:
Council Member's Page on Terrorism Prevention Act (2005)

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