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Hazardous Spill Rate Rises for Thin-Skin Tank Cars : Freight: Railroads say safety is improving but accidents have potential for large catastrophe.

DANGER IN TRANSIT. Highways, railways and hazardous materials. Last of three parts

September 22, 1992|MICHAEL PARRISH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The economics of environmental and human risk are destined to be at the center of debates in the 1990s over the transport of hazardous materials. Government regulators, operating under financial constraints, will have to answer demands for safer shipping; accidents will continue to stir public alarm.

Boyd Lunsford knows a lot about the costs of haphazard control of hazardous materials.

On a July night in 1984, Lunsford, then a brakeman for the Santa Fe Railroad, walked around a car on a derailed freight train in New Mexico--straight into a wall of hydrofluoric acid that was spraying into the air from a damaged tank car.

Lunsford suffered lung, thyroid and brain damage, along with the loss of his railroad career.

"If people knew what we carry on those trains across the United States, they would have heart attacks," Lunsford said. "Sometimes I wonder who the DOT works for."

Times researchers William Holmes and Cary Schneider contributed to this story.

The Railway Tank Car has Well-Known Flaws. . .

Public interest groups, some regulators and the railroads themselves long have been critical of using the standard rail tank car--known by its Department of Transportation designation as the "111A"--in the transport of many hazardous materials. Shown below are some of the most widely cited problem areas and proposed improvements:

COMMON RAILROAD TANK CAR 1. Head shielding. In an accident, the ends of tank cars frequently are punctured. Head protection--either heavy steel vertical walls or extra plating molded over each end of the tank--is standard on some tank cars. 2. Thermal jackets. Rail accidents sometimes produce fires that can burn through otherwise undamaged tank cars, releasing dangerous materials or causing explosions. Several inches of insulation--either fiberglass or another material--can delay burn-through, in many cases by more than 90 minutes. 3. Thicker shells. The standard 111A--made of either steel or aluminum--has the thinnest shell of any U.S. tank car: 7/16ths of an inch. Other cars that carry hazardous materials, by contrast, have shells at least 9/16th of an inch thick. Also, some critics favor banning the use of aluminum tanks, which are more easily punctured, in the shipment of hazardous materials. 4. Protection of upper and lower outlets. Nozzle openings, access covers and filling pipes of the 111A are more susceptible to damage than the tanks themselves. Recommended solutions include the elimination of outlets on the bottom of the tank cars and strengthening the fittings on top. Source: National Transportation Safety Board

. . .And It Is to Blame For Many Hazardous Spills Railway Hazardous Materials Incidents, 1928-1991

People Damages Container Type Incidents Deaths Injuries Evacuated (millions of $) DOT 111A-series 5,418 0 249 8,583 $42.6 tank car Pressurized 1,188 1 57 2,112 3.8 tank car Metal drum 4,060 0 17 650 1.3 Non-metal drum 135 0 3 0 0.3

Source: Compiled from Department of Transportation Hazardous Materials Incident Reporting System by Richard O'Reilly, Times director of computer analysis

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