Ignoring warnings a high-stakes gamble

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans two years ago and the levees were breached, flooding much of the city, the recriminations were quick, loud and angry: Why hadn't someone warned us this could happen? Why wasn't something done to prevent it? Why, oh why?

In June 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune warned that a storm much weaker than the Category 5 Katrina could devastate the city.

"That would turn the city and the east bank of Jefferson Parish into a lake as much as 30 feet deep, fouled with chemicals and waste from ruined septic systems, businesses and homes," wrote reporters John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein. "Such a flood could trap hundreds of thousands of people in buildings and in vehicles. At the same time, high winds and tornadoes would tear at everything left standing. Between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die ...

"Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter in New Orleans for people too sick or infirm to leave the city."

The writers quoted a Louisiana State University engineer who was studying ways to limit hurricane damage in the area.

"Another scenario is that some part of the levee would fail," Joseph Suhayda told them. "It's not something that's expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing."

But the party in the Big Easy went on. Laissez les bon temps roulez. (Let the good times roll.)

So, when a chlorine tanker car broke loose from a Union Pacific railroad yard in southwest Las Vegas and free-wheeled out of control for 20 miles through the heart of the Strip and downtown at speeds of up 50 miles an hour, the recriminations were quick, loud and angry.

"It is clear to us that Union Pacific's safety and notification plans are either fundamentally flawed or were not followed properly," County Manager Virginia Valentine wrote in a letter to Union Pacific.

"The fact that no injuries or fatalities occurred as a result of this incident is nothing short of miraculous, considering this event could have resulted in the worst disaster in our community's history."

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman called for better notification of local authorities when hazardous materials are transported through city limits and suggested an existing ordinance barring the transport of nuclear waste could be expanded to include hazardous material such as chlorine gas.

Rep. Jon Porter plans to hold a public hearing on the transportation of hazardous materials in Las Vegas.

You know where this is leading, right?

On a windy April day in 2005, Review-Journal reporter Keith Rogers took a stroll along the railroad tracks in the Las Vegas Valley. On a sidetrack in downtown Las Vegas, in the shadow of Main Street Station and the Plaza hotel, Rogers counted 20 railroad cars with placards indicating they contained weed killer, butane and highly flammable alcohol.

Ten miles south, in Arden, he found 16 tank cars of hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide.

On a spur at the Black Mountain Industrial Center near Henderson, he encountered a dozen more tank cars, some placarded to show they contained liquid chlorine.

During the entire day, Rogers was approached only once by a railroad employee who asked what he was doing. When he replied that he was taking notes, the worker smiled and said, "OK. That's all right," and drove off.

Rogers reported then that Mayor Goodman was one of 51 mayors demanding more emergency response information from railroad regulators and the Department of Homeland Security.

"I don't think anybody can rest easy if they think these toxic substances are in their back yards," Goodman told Rogers.

As if to put an exclamation mark on this situation, Review-Journal special projects reporter Alan Maimon in April of this year reported on the local disaster scenarios being contemplated in a Homeland Security document.

The most devastating of these hypothetical events: "A chlorine gas accident in Las Vegas would result in the highest number of fatalities, somewhere between 74,000 and 91,000 under worst-case conditions. The presumed worst-case would be the spill of 34,500 gallons of chlorine -- the amount contained in a railroad tanker car -- near the Union Pacific overpass on Charleston Boulevard."

And what exactly has been done since then, besides letting a chlorine tanker roll through town? The gambling continues unabated, and the stakes remain awfully high.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the newspaper and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ reviewjournal.com.