The freight trains that rumble past your home at night often carry more than coal. According to the Star Gazette, railroad companies ship deadly chemicals across the country every day and "refuse to publicly disclose exactly what those substances are, or how often they travel through the area."

The article cites Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) spokesman Warren Flatau, who told the paper that only the railroads know what's in the cars. This means that HAZMAT crews responding to the scene of a potential accident have no advance knowledge of the contents. The Gazette questions the ability of crews to prepare and respond without such critical knowledge.

Flatau counters that it's "a matter of national security" to keep the contents of the cars secret. Others argue that anyone who wanted to do damage could compare the codes printed on the cars to the codes list in readily available emergency response guidebooks. 

Flatau did say that if local official request specific information, the FRA will share the top chemicals moving through an area each year, but not the quantities. The article cites an incident this June in which a derailment occurred in New York's Broome County. The Gazette said the railroad companies wouldn't reveal the contents of the cars involved in the derailment to the newspaper.

An accident involving railroad cars that transport chlorine or ammonia could create a toxic cloud if the cars were punctured. The Gazette says "a compromised 90-ton rail car of chlorine could create a plume 15 miles long by 5 miles wide" — a deadly storm indeed. The article mentions that such gas clouds were used during WWI to kill soldiers because the poison hangs low to the ground.

According to the story, several major railroads emphasize the potential security threat of making public the schedule of transport for specific chemicals. However, the New York derailment in June was a close call for some Binghamton residents. Emergency personnel were not notified until hours after the derailment, when officials at a nearby senior center phoned to see if they should evacuate. 

The railroad company involved told the Star Gazette that the tanks were "effectively empty," which was why they had not notified local HAZMAT teams and brought in "a private environmental monitoring company" to deal with the accident. In this specific case, the cars all remained upright, so no residual chemicals leaked out. The Gazette also spoke to the FRA about the incident, and the agency expressed concerned that the incident wasn't immediately reported to local emergency personnel, especially since the derailment happened in the middle of a city.

City officials in Elmira, N.Y., told the paper that it might work if cities did not know the specific contents of the cars moving through the towns, as long as "there is a plan to deal with it" should there be a mishap. Several emergency response officials told the Gazette that evacuating the area would be a primary concern, followed by bringing in reinforcements or having the railroad "bring in a team to clean up the mess."

According to the article, most HAZMAT teams say they are adequately prepared to handle a minor chemical leak, but need to know "exactly what chemical is leaking," hence the labels on the tankers and the emergency response guides. Many HAZMAT crews consult local chemists to learn how to respond to different chemicals. Having logs of the types and quantities of chemicals passing through specific towns could, according to the article, help local HAZMAT crews budget for proper equipment and to allocate Homeland Security funds to better prepare for an emergency.

Other officials told the Gazette that there is a higher risk, statistically, of having a hazardous spill from a truck since so many highways snake through populated areas. 

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Should local officials know when railroads transport dangerous chemicals?
Hazardous cargo must be kept secret for safety reasons, but HAZMAT crews need information when they respond to the scene of an accident.