Chemicals are close to home

Rail cars, big rigs and pipelines bring chemicals close to home, but officials say there’s no reason for new concerns, despite the recent terror attacks.

By Kate Reardon

Herald Writer

EVERETT — The railroad tracks on West Marine View Drive don’t just carry trains, they also serve as a temporary storage yard for hazardous materials.

On any given day, dozens of tankers filled with hazardous chemicals are parked on the rails between waterfront restaurants and the Navy base and homes on Grand Avenue on the bluff. The rail cars are an example of how millions of gallons of hazardous materials are either stored in or transported through Snohomish County. Despite recent fears of terrorism, officials say the presence of these chemicals is no cause for new concerns, officials said. Hazardous materials such as gasoline are commonly stored in small amounts in our cars and in our gardening sheds. On a larger scale, businesses make, store and use chemicals on a daily basis.

"Since the September 11 NYC situation, we have been on heightened alert," said Gus Melonas, spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, which operates the tracks. "We’re well prepared in the event of a hazmat situation. We’re confident that our employees and neighboring communities are protected."

Burlington Northern has employees looking at overall operations, including bridges, tunnels, tracks and signal systems. The company is also taking special precautions for certain operations and working with state and federal agents.

The Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management and the Snohomish County Local Emergency Planning Committee inventory all hazardous materials that are made, stored or used in the county. Agencies that work with hazardous chemicals are required by law to report the usage and flow to emergency management agencies.

The agencies use the information to work with local law enforcement to develop emergency plans. The primary reason for the Local Emergency Planning Agency is to inform the community about existing hazards.

Two studies released this year show the types of chemicals stored in and transported through the county.

Petroleum is by far the product most commonly used, stored and shipped. A hazardous materials flow study, which was released in August, measured the types of chemicals transported by truck. The majority, about 63 percent, of hazardous materials transported through the county by truck are flammable solids and liquids. Other chemicals moved by truck include corrosives, flammable gas, nonflammable gas, and explosives and blasting agents. These are chemicals moved mainly on I-5, Highway 99 and Highway 2.

Mike McCallister, coordinator for plans and operations for the county’s Department of Emergency Management, said the study was a quick glance. A few people over a few days made the assessment. More resources and money would allow for a more thorough study, McCallister said.

"If we were to do this right, it would take a couple of weeks with 20 to 25 people going full time," he said. "My job is to make sure we know as best as we can what the hazard is," he said. "The last thing we want to do is have people frightened because of what’s out there."

The most common method of petroleum transport is not trucks, however. It’s through the Olympic gas and Williams natural gas pipelines.

"The quantities are very significant," McCallister said, adding that about 8,000 gallons or so of fuel a minute flows through the pipelines.

Petroleum is being used and stored at nearly every turn. Every gas station stores between 20,000 and 40,000 gallons of gasoline, he said.

There are no major sources of hazardous materials manufacturing in the county. Although the airline and paper-processing industries do produce hazardous materials, it’s not in large quantities.

The other study says that since 1990 there have been 521 hazardous material spills reported in the county. In 1999, 69 were reported — three were pipeline spills, and 23 were marine spills.

Knowing where hazardous materials are stored comes in handy not only for emergency planning, but also for community planning.

For example, when a local school district recently was considering buying a piece of land for a new school, officials called McCallister. He was able to tell them about what kinds of hazardous chemicals were carried on rail tracks nearby. As a result, the district decided not to go with that particular piece of property. To find out what kind, if any, hazardous materials are being stored in your neighborhood, contact the county Department of Emergency Management at 425-423-7635.

You can call Herald Writer Kate Reardon at 425-339-3455

or send e-mail to reardon@heraldnet.com.

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