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Toxic Trains and the Terrorist Threat: How Water Utilities Can Get Chlorine Gas Off the Rails and Out of American Communities

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Publication Date: June 2008

Publisher(s): Center for American Progress

Author(s): Paul Orum

Topic: Government (Internal security)
Transportation (Railroads and trains)


Each year, thousands of tons of highly toxic chlorine gas travel by rail in the United States to drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities and other industries. These massive railcars traverse some 300,000 miles of freight railways, passing through almost all major American cities and towns. A rupture of one of these railcars could release a dense, lethal plume for miles downwind, potentially killing or injuring thousands of people.

The Department of Homeland Security and numerous security experts have repeatedly warned that terrorists could use industrial chemicals as improvised weapons of mass destruction—and indeed, terrorists recently attacked and blew up several trucks carrying chlorine in Iraq. In this respect, railcars of chlorine gas represent a distinct national security vulnerability. Yet Congress and the Bush administration have not acted to eliminate unnecessary uses of chlorine gas railcars even where undeniably affordable and practical alternatives exist.

The good news is this vulnerability can be removed. Since 1999, some 25 water utilities that formerly received chlorine gas by rail have switched to safer and more secure water treatment options, such as liquid bleach or ultraviolet light. These alternative treatment options eliminate the danger of a catastrophic toxic gas cloud. As a result, more than 26 million Americans who live near these facilities are safer and more secure.


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