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If It Goes by Rail . . . : Southern Pacific's latest accident shows need for help from manufacturers

July 30, 1991

Two weeks after a Southern Pacific Railroad train derailed along the Sacramento River, causing a devastating chemical spill, another SP train has been in an accident involving dangerous chemicals--this time closer to home.

Sunday's train wreck at Seacliff, in Ventura County, did not cause immediate environmental damage. Nonetheless, attention will be focused anew on just how SP runs its railroad.

And, with the number of rail accidents involving hazardous materials climbing in many parts of the country, this latest incident underscores the need for federal and state agencies, as well as the rail companies, to address fundamental safety questions.

A broken axle reportedly contributed to the Seacliff accident, which disrupted rail and highway traffic along one of Southern California's busiest transportation corridors.

The main chemical spilled was aequeous hydrazine, which SP apparently has a legal right to haul in the manner it did. Only 6% of the chemicals that constitute the building blocks for thousands of agricultural and industrial compounds are subject to strict labeling, packaging and transportation rules; but that doesn't mean that the other 94% aren't dangerous under the wrong circumstances.

For example, the pesticide metam-sodium, which killed most of the aquatic plants and fish along 45 miles of the Sacramento River two weeks ago, is not registered as hazardous by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Yet in addition to being deadly to wildlife in some circumstances, it can be lethal to humans in concentrated doses--and so can aequeous hydrazine. Governments everywhere are notoriously slow in making regulatory changes. It looks as if we have reached a point where tough new rules on such compounds are needed.

In the meantime, Southern Pacific must do something to assuage public concern about what its trains might be carrying. It should pressure clients that manufacture potentially hazardous materials to test them under a variety of conditions so that steps to protect the health and safety of the public can be taken before there's trouble. Accidents, after all, do happen. And SP, in particular, is having a run of pretty bad luck.

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