As worries rise over rail shipments of hazardous materials, chemicals that can explode, ignite, corrode or poison sometimes sit unprotected for days in rail cars parked across the Carolinas.
The January derailment and chlorine release that killed nine people in Graniteville, S.C., underscored the risks in shipping hazmat. But the potential danger doesn't disappear once the cargo stops.
At least 60 freight trains move through the Charlotte region each day, passing within a mile of nearly 800,000 people. No law, however, forces the rail companies to reveal how much hazmat rolls through the region -- or sits parked in rail cars.
"There are thousands and thousands" of stored hazmat cars nationwide, said Fred Millar, an Arlington, Va., emergency management consultant who believes the government is too lax on rail security. "Unfortunately, the situation is so widespread, it's like the government doesn't want to know about it."
Critics say rail cars left at poorly guarded sidings and freight yards leave communities vulnerable to chemical leaks, vandalism and terrorists. Some examples in and around Charlotte:
A lock was broken open on one of several rail cars carrying military munitions through Charlotte to Fort Bragg last May. Nothing was stolen, but a city official reported the cars appeared to be unguarded and apparently hadn't moved in two days.
Norfolk Southern said it would move about five chemical rail cars left last month on a lonely stretch of track south of Huntersville "to provide better security" after questions from the Observer.
Huntersville and Kannapolis have complained to the railroads, with mixed results, about hazmat rail cars left parked on open rail lines in their downtowns.
In the Carolinas, vandals released hazmat from idled rail cars at least twice in the past five years, federal records show.
The Government Accountability Office, in a 2003 report, recommended that minimum security standards be developed for hazmat stored in rail cars. Nearly two years later, federal transportation-security agencies still haven't produced those standards.
The rail industry touts its voluntary security improvements since 9-11, saying companies have spent more than $100 million on upgrades. Norfolk Southern and CSX, the major freight lines through Charlotte, say they rely on their own police and thousands of employees who serve as "eyes and ears" against intruders.
But most railroad workers say they've had little or no security training, said Brenda Cantrell, who holds government-funded hazmat seminars for union rail workers at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md.
"They talk about unsecured rail yards, cars left on sidings. I mean, if you look at the graffiti on cars, how does that get there?" Cantrell said.
Just-in-time delivery schedules, seasonal fluctuations and limited space make rail cars handy storage places for industries.CSX boasts more than 14,000 freight storage spaces on the East Coast through its "Warehouse on Wheels" program. The initiative, for now, is limited to nonhazardous materials.
Federal transportation rules say hazmat cars in transit have to move along expeditiously. They're not supposed to stay in yards or at transfer points longer than 48 hours at a time.
The rule doesn't apply, however, to cars that have reached their destination but can't yet be accepted for delivery by a customer, the Federal Railroad Administration says. The cars can then be stored on leased track or on the rail carrier's property.
A Charlotte Fire Department battalion chief noticed more than 20 rail cars stopped last May on a rail spur near a neighborhood off Bellhaven Boulevard northwest of uptown. Orange placards identified the cargo as explosives.
The cars, the chief learned, carried munitions headed for Fort Bragg. A lock on one of the cars had been broken, although the FBI says none of the munitions were stolen.