The city is considering designating certain routes through town as hazardous material transport routes. The idea has been around for awhile but has been given new urgency by heightened homeland security concerns, which have sparked local government and local activist groups to put a new focus on hazardous materials issues.
The city is working with a University of Montana Environmental Studies graduate student to designate a route. The student, Brian Crawford, addressed the City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee recently, and suggested that having a known, specified route would serve public safety.
Crawford also recommended increasing communications between the city, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and Montana Rail Link (MRL), working on statewide hazardous material transport regulations with the Legislature, requesting biannual maintenance reports from MRL, and exploring ways to better track freight trucks.
Crawford notes that like most states, Montana does not have its own laws regulating the transport of dangerous materials. Meanwhile, truck accidents and train derailments are fairly common occurrences nationwide, with a train accident occurring approximately once every 90 minutes, according the railroad industry watchdog group, RailWatch. Moreover, the group reports that about once every three weeks a train carrying hazardous materials runs off the tracks or spills its load, forcing the evacuation of a nearby community.
“Our lives could change in a heartbeat if something happened,” says Ward Three Councilwoman Lou Ann Crowley, chair of the Public Safety and Health Committee. While the plan is still in the early discussion stages, Crowley says, she thinks that talking about a specific route will lead to a broader discussion of hazardous materials in Missoula.
Some have expressed concerns, stoked by post-September 11 fears of bio-terrorism, about nuclear waste being trucked through the state. Closer to home, events like the 1996 MRL derailment that spilled toxic chemicals in Alberton have shown the inherent dangers of transporting hazardous materials through the Missoula area.
Designating a route through town would most likely serve to manage less exotic substances, says Loran Frazier of the state DOT. Frazier has done some consulting with the city, and he identifies trucks carrying fertilizer, gasoline, paint and propane as the most common hazardous materials transporters. They commonly go through town on Highway 93 (Reserve Street) and U.S. Highway 12 (which overlaps several streets, including Brooks Avenue and Sixth Street).
The Public Safety and Health Committee will meet again to discuss the matter in early June. In the meantime, some Missoula non-profit groups and activists have been doing work of their own to minimize the threat posed by hazardous materials. MontPIRG and Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) have brought to Montana the “Safe Hometowns Initiative,” an effort by Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) chapters and other groups around the country to get communities involved in hazardous chemical issues. A report released in March identified 42 sites in Montana that contain more than 100,000 pounds of extremely hazardous chemicals. In almost every case the hazardous chemical is ammonia, a popular fertilizer component used by farm supply wholesalers. WVE Project Coordinator Alexandra Gorman met with officials in Helena earlier this month to discuss taking safety measures.
Public awareness is a cornerstone of the campaign, although post-Sept. 11 security concerns have made it much more difficult to find lists of which chemicals are located where, and in some cases the information is no longer made public at all. According to Tony Tweedale, a Missoula man who has been active in pollution and toxicology issues for years, the right-to-know debate is particularly relevant to transportation issues.
The rail and trucking industries almost completely exempt from federal right-to-know laws, Tweedale says. To make the transportation of hazardous materials safer, communities and emergency responders need to know what is passing through town and when, he says.
“If the public becomes more aware of what some of the risks are, inherent safety things start happening very quickly. Things get redesigned, chemicals are substituted,” Tweedale says. “But in a closed, dark room like we have now that just doesn’t happen.”