Ten years ago, Tom and Holly Bieker moved into a 70-year-old farmhouse in Belmont, a tiny community with a handful of families and grain elevators in Washington’s Palouse country. In the picturesque setting, the couple said they never imagined that 50 rail cars of toxic chlorine gas could be their neighbors.
A Canadian company’s proposal to store the chlorine behind a $250,000 security fence at a remote rail siding in Whitman County has alarmed residents and raised questions about which government agencies are responsible for oversight.
Canexus Chemical wants to stockpile chlorine gas for delivery to U.S. customers at the site while its rail yard in Vancouver, B.C., is torn up during a plant expansion, said Marty Cove, the company’s manager of logistics. The storage could begin early next year and would last about six months.
The 2010 Winter Olympics are also a consideration. Cove said nothing at this point indicates that Canexus will have difficulty moving chlorine through Vancouver after the games begin on Feb. 12. However, such shipments were halted in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“They want a place to store cars if there’s a temporary shutdown in rail shipments due to security,” said Stan Patterson, president of the Washington Idaho Railway, which would lease the storage space to Canexus.
Patterson said the railway also transports anhydrous ammonia used for fertilizer. Sometimes, those cars sit on the tracks for several weeks, waiting to be unloaded.
“I think it borders on comical that people care if it’s going to be a chlorine car or an ammonia car,” Patterson said. “They’re both inhalation hazards, and they both could kill you.”
Canexus produces chlorine for water treatment plants. While company officials say their safety record is impeccable, the Biekers aren’t reassured. The couple’s house is 175 feet from the rail siding.
“We’re real concerned about it,” Tom Bieker said. “If something did happen, if there was a spill, you’d pretty much die a terrible death from breathing the chlorine.”
Chlorine gas is a potentially fatal inhalant that sears the lungs. Last summer, Priest River’s downtown was evacuated for five hours after a leaky valve was discovered in a 150-pound chlorine tank at the city water treatment plant. That’s a small amount of chlorine compared to 90 tons in each rail car, Bieker said.
“We want (Canexus) to realize that this isn’t the right spot,” he said. “Why not somewhere up in Canada in the boondocks?”
Since learning about Canexus’ proposal last week, Bieker has contacted numerous government agencies.
Whitman County officials told him that the county lacked jurisdiction to regulate the chlorine. Because rail transport is involved, the matter falls under the Federal Railroad Administration’s authority, said Alan Thomson, the Whitman County planner.
But Bieker, a hazardous waste technician at the University of Idaho, later talked to a federal railroad inspector. The inspector told him that federal rail law overrides state and local laws only when the hazardous materials are shipped to their final destination with layovers of 48 hours or less.
State officials are looking into whether the 48-hour rule prohibits storing chlorine at Belmont.
“There could be an issue with this regulation,” Mike Rowswell, project manager for the Washington state Department of Transportation’s rail and marine division, said Thursday morning.
Later in the day, however, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said the 48-hour rule wouldn’t forbid chlorine storage. That’s because Canexus is working with other federal agencies that regulate long-term storage of hazardous materials, including Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, said Warren Flatau, the spokesman.
“Canexus has been very thoughtful and proactive to cover all their bases,” Flatau said. However, “this is not all settled,” he added.
Canexus looked at multiple sites before deciding that Belmont met its storage needs, said Cove, the company’s logistics manager. Both the remoteness of the rail siding and access to major rail lines were pluses. If the temporary storage is approved, Canexus may evaluate the site for longer-term use, officials said.
In addition to the security fence, the company will post guards at the site. Canexus is also buying a new fleet of chlorine storage cars, which exceed federal safety regulations, according to company officials.
“Chlorine storage in rail cars is extremely safe,” company officials wrote in a letter distributed to Belmont residents.
Cars that haul chlorine gas are “built a lot stronger than your average tank,” said Bob Johnston, a rail carrier compliance specialist with Washington state. “They’re designed to handle a derailment without leaking.”
Rail fatalities that involve chlorine gas leaks typically occur when trains collide, Johnston said.
In 2005, eight people were killed in Georgia when a freight train carrying chlorine gas struck a parked train. Another 200 people were injured.
In 1996, a man illegally riding on a Montana Rail Link train was killed in Alberton, Mont., when a derailment released a cloud of chlorine gas. Authorities evacuated 1,000 nearby residents and closed part of Interstate 90 for 17 days.
Canexus officials said rail cars carrying chlorine gas on the Washington Idaho Railway would travel at speeds of 10 mph or less.
Last week, Canexus put on a training session for local firefighters and other emergency response personnel. It covered how to respond in the event of a chlorine leak.
“I assume this company is going to be very safe. They’re spending a lot of money to do this,” said Ron Johnson, a Whitman County Fire District 10 commissioner, who lives in nearby Farmington.
But Bieker and his wife still have concerns. Every time they look out their living room window, they notice how close the tracks are.
“A lot of these guys you talk to, they say, ‘Oh well, it’s not a big deal. We’re a farming community and we use chemicals all the time,’ ” Bieker said. “But it is a big deal … If anything happened, it would kill us immediately.”