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.
"Under the current climate of heightened level security, I am concerned about this type of shipment being left unattended, unsecured in a metropolitan area," Battalion Chief Quentin Maver wrote in a memo to his boss.
Some Charlotte-area towns have also grown uneasy about congregations of hazmat cars.
A rail yard in downtown Kannapolis, officials say, is a temporary parking lot for Norfolk Southern trains. Some cars have displayed placards for highly toxic ammonia and corrosive nitric acid.
Apart from safety concerns, city officials say, the cars won't fit in with the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of the former Pillowtex Corp. complex across the street.
"Certainly, it's not something we want to have," said City Manager Mike Legg. "But we've been down there battling with them before. I think they're doing everything they can."
In Huntersville, area resident John Probst noticed chemical tank cars parked along Main Street about a year ago. He looked up the chemical -- toluene diisocyanate, a chemical whose toxic vapors can cause lung damage -- on the Internet and called town hall.
"Those things were literally parked in peoples' front yards over there," Probst said. "If you're going to have a chemical that's that dangerous, it should not be stored outside a locked facility."
Foamex International, whose Cornelius plant uses TDI to make polyurethane foam, says it secures incoming cars behind locked gates. But its chemical supplier is responsible for the cars until they arrive, the company says, and it's up to Norfolk Southern to decide where to park them.
Huntersville had told Norfolk Southern and Foamex that it preferred the cars be parked elsewhere, said Assistant Town Manager Greg Ferguson.
More recently, Probst said, the cars have been parked farther south on a seldom-used track along N.C. 115. That's where five were parked last month.
In response to questions from the Observer, Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said tank cars will no longer be kept at that location. They'll instead be moved to its Charlotte rail yard.
Railroad police "can't stand guard 24-7 over a particular train that's parked, but they do patrol periodically," Chapman said. "We rely on all our employees to keep an eye open" for security risks.
Federal rules require hazmat carriers and shippers to develop security plans, including an assessment of risks en route, and instruct employees. But the rules prescribe only "appropriate measures" to be included in the plans, which are not filed with the government.
"It makes a whole lot of people do not very much," said Millar, the consultant, who helped Washington, D.C., try to block hazmat shipments near the Capitol. "Industry does its own self-analysis and does their own security plan, with pretty good odds that nobody is going to look at it."
Last April, the federal homeland security and transportation departments began jointly working to improve security of rail shipments of hazmat that can be toxic if inhaled, such as chlorine.
Among the group's goals, said a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, are improving security during rail car storage, enhancing the cars' ability to survive attacks and developing new protective measures.
Stored hazmat is also addressed in a security plan the rail industry developed soon after 9-11, creating four alert levels, says the Association of American Railroads. Spokesman Tom White said he couldn't discuss the details of the plan.
Charlotte industries that receive hazardous materials shipments began beefing up security before the terrorist attacks, said Charlotte Fire Marshal Bart Massey. Most companies wanted to prevent vandalism, Massey said, but "9-11 kicked it into high gear."
The chemical company Rohm and Haas spent nearly $750,000 to upgrade security at its northeast Charlotte plant after 9-11. The plant converts hazardous materials into nonhazardous polymers used in latex paint, adhesives and coatings.
Incoming hazmat rail cars, which once parked outside the plant's perimeter, now sit inside a tall fence. They're also physically inspected for evidence of tampering. Video cameras, lights and an intrusion detection system help keep watch.
At JCI Jones Chemicals in northwest Charlotte, three rail cars that carry chlorine were parked on a rail spur beside the plant on a recent day. It was unclear whether the cars, which sat inside a tall, chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, were loaded.
Jones makes bleach at its Charlotte location and transfers chlorine from rail cars to smaller containers. Since 9-11, CEO Jeffrey Jones said, the company has submitted a formal security plan to federal authorities and hired a retired Marine colonel as its security director.
"We would not feel comfortable if a car was left outside the fence, nor would the suppliers who own the car," Jones said. "We have a significant degree of security. It would be quite surprising to you and to others how much that place is monitored by mechanical as well as human means."