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Baltimore rail fire heightens concerns

BY HENRY BRIER | BALTIMORE | July 24, 2001


"It's a major problem to put that volume of flammable corrosive material in a tunnel. It is eventually a recipe for a significant catastrophe."

—Dr. Dirk Nies


A rail tunnel fire that disrupted Baltimore last week was finally extinguished Monday morning with little environmental impact, but the incident is prompting a closer look at hazardous waste rail shipments.

A 60-car train carrying hazardous materials and other freight, derailed and caught fire Wednesday night in a more than mile long tunnel under much of the downtown portion of the city. Although many city residents were initially warned to keep their windows shut and air conditioners off, officials said no air-borne health hazards were detected during the four-day emergency.

However, others have suggested the state may have been just lucky this time.

"I was a bit surprised that the route and the types and amounts of these chemicals passed through a tunnel," said Dr. Dirk Nies, a chemist with Chemical Information Services. "It's a serious situation and seems to be inviting a potential disaster."

The U.S. Senate voted 96-0 Monday to ask the Transportation Department to study the issues related to hauling hazardous and radioactive materials. In separate action, the Senate is also considering a proposal that the department conduct an evaluation of freight and passenger rail equipment and facilities in the Baltimore area. The requests are contained in amendments to a transportation spending bill and would require reports be due within a year.

After fire fighters removed the final rail car stuck in the Baltimore tunnel, public safety officials said they were relieved that the hazardous chemicals did not threaten the general public.

Two fire fighters who received minor injuries while fighting the fire, appear to be the sole injuries reported thus far, according to Mike Maybin, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Fire Department.

"I think we were generally fortunate that there was no release to the environment and no loss of life," said Nies, from his Charlottesville, VA, office.

Some of the chemicals about which officials were concerned were hydrochloric acid, fluosilicic acid, acetic acid, propylene glycol and ethyl hexyl phthalate, said John Verrico, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

He said the department was on-hand until Saturday, when the final rail cars carrying hazardous materials were removed.

"Those were the ones of concern," Verrico said. "There was no hazardous release whatsoever."

Nies said the worst case scenario would have been a fire or an explosion that would breach the tunnel because some of the chemicals are flammable.

He said such a disaster would have been even worse had it caused human death, but he didn't expect the derailed car to have any lasting harmful environmental impact.

"It's not the kind of thing that would take years to recover," he added. "But it's a major problem to put that volume of flammable corrosive material in a tunnel. It is eventually a recipe for a significant catastrophe. You're clearly inviting risk not only to human health but also to the environment."

He said the chemicals at worst would have caused an acute problem -- meaning one that is short lived, as opposed to a chronic hazard that results from long term exposure.

He said hydrochloric acid, which commonly is used in industrial swimming pools, is more of a corrosive. Hydrochloric acid can cause stinging to the eyes and lungs if airborne.

Fluosilicic acid, which he called "fairly nasty," has the potential to be more toxic than chlorine and it can be highly corrosive to the skin, he said. It's non-combustible, but it's toxic and corrosive, able to cause severe burns to skin and eyes.

Acetic acid is not toxic and it is not known to cause health effects, but it is corrosive, while Propylene glycol can be flammable, depending upon certain factors, he said. Considerations are how it's formulated and how it is shipped.

Ethyl hexyl phthalate is a flammable compound primarily used for tubing hoses or other rubber or plastic materials, adding "It's been somewhat implicated in cancer and other health concerns," Nies said.

Engineers who inspected the tunnel Monday night said train traffic could resume, on a limited basis, as early as Tuesday afternoon.


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