In June 2004, a chlorine spill from a rail tank car caused three deaths in San Antonio. While other similar incidents have occurred around the country, railcars are still the primary method for transporting this chemical used by water treatment plants to make drinking water safe. In order to address concerns about hazardous materials (hazmat) carried by rail, some people suggest building rail or highway bypass routes, while others recommend using existing routes outside of populated areas.
Since 9/11, the spotlight on safety has intensified for all modes of transportation. Government officials better understand that hazmat can pose a danger to citizens, whether through accidental or intentional means. With this in mind, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is researching ways to reduce the health, safety and environmental risks of hazmat movements.
A Route Less Traveled
Texas Transportation Institute’s (TTI’s) Jeff Warner, an associate transportation researcher for the Multimodal Freight Transportation Program, leads one TxDOT project. His team’s research focuses on effectively managing the movement of hazardous materials.
“Hazmat moves safely every day by all modes. The potential for a catastrophic event makes it an important issue, but there are solutions to minimize the opportunity for a major disaster and improve the overall safety,” says Warner. Still, periodic crashes and derailments keep communities concerned.
The TTI research team will provide guidance materials that can be used by all groups involved in making these decisions, from the local community to the transportation planner to private industry. The researchers have found that all solutions come with tradeoffs. For rail, increasing the distance of the route by moving it out of town increases the exposure time. Lesser-used tracks also tend to be lower quality tracks, which increases the risk of derailment and the shipping time. A longer route also means increased fuel costs and changes in crew working hours, which could impact how railroad companies operate.
“Moving hazmat away from the population centers is not always a possibility. As long as there are gas stations and water treatment plants in town, a community will never completely eliminate the need for hazmat to travel through the area. A combination of solutions from all levels, though, would greatly reduce the risk of a major incident. It’s a team effort,” says Warner.
Since hazmat issues affect both the public and private sectors, there is widespread interest in improving safety. The federal government has pushed for tank car and route safety improvements. TxDOT plans route designations that lead hazmat transport away from neighborhoods. A local community could plan new intersections that would reduce the possibility of trucks overturning. Affected industries contribute by investing in alternative technologies such as reducing the use of hazardous materials in chemical processing, developing less toxic chemicals and using ultra-violet lighting instead of chlorine to treat water.
“The guidebook will expand on the findings from the HB 160 report and provide local governments a valuable resource for hazardous material regulations, guidelines and potential strategies for managing hazardous material transportation in their communities,” says Jennifer Moczygemba, P.E., multimodal section director of TxDOT’s Transportation Planning and Programming Division.
Piecing Together the Big Picture
TTI has steadily increased research into hazmat management since the 1990s. Researchers are currently working with faculty from Texas A&M University’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning on the project “Hazardous Materials Commodity Flow Data and Analysis,” funded through the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB’s) Hazardous Materials Cooperative Research Program.
As part of a community’s emergency management plan, hazmat commodity flow surveys help assess the risk of hazmat travel—whether by highway, rail, pipeline or waterway—through a populated area.
“The objective of the research is to update a 1995 guidebook written by the U.S DOT that can be used by local emergency planning committees (LEPCs), state emergency response commissions or private companies,” says George Rogers of Texas A&M’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning. “We’re putting together steps that LEPCs can use to manage and reduce risk before an incident —changing the routes, the scheduling, how it’s being handled in accident-prone areas—and steps for after the fact, such as response training.”
But funding barriers have prevented some communities from conducting hazmat commodity surveys. LEPCs are typically made up of dedicated volunteers, and the large majority of them have little-to-no consistent funding base. Hazmat commodity flow surveys are typically conducted by local communities using funds from federal Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness grants, which require a non-federal match.
“While doing these types of studies may seem challenging for LEPCs, there are ways they can make the project easier, obtain needed funding and involve the community,” says David Bierling, assistant research scientist for TTI’s Multimodal Freight Transportation Program. “The guidebook provides one tool to aid emergency response planners in understanding hazmat transport.”
With ever-changing technology, research projects like these will help communities better understand and manage hazardous materials transportation. “It’s vital to make this research available to transportation planners across the country,” says Bill Rogers, TRB’s senior program officer. “Keeping emergency responders current and well informed is our best defense.”