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Dear EarthTalk: Vice-President Joe Biden just announced a commitment by the Obama administration of $53 billion to high speed rail. Isn’t it about time? Why is the U.S. so far behind other nations in developing environmentally friendly public transportation? -- Diane A., Boston, MA

EarthTalkHighSpeedRail
Plans to expand high-speed rail service are now underway in
several U.S. regions. A recent report found that high-speed
rail in the Midwest would reduce air travel by 1.3 million trips
and car travel by 5.1 million trips per year by 2020, saving
188,000 tons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to taking 34,000
cars off the road while still getting everyone to and from work.
Pictured: High speed trains at the St. Pancras International
station, London.Photo courtesy John Curnow, Flickr

There are many reasons why public transit hasn’t taken off in the U.S. as it has in parts of Asia, Europe and elsewhere. For one, ever since the Model T first rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, Americans have had a love affair with cars. Also, a successful plot by General Motors and several partner companies in the 1930 and 1940s bought up and shut down rail transit lines across 45 American cities, replacing them with bus routes driven on GM buses. Meanwhile, the U.S. government embarked on a plan to link the nation’s metro areas via interstate highways, further encouraging car travel. The sexy new car designs of the 1950s then drove the final nail in the coffin, relegating public transportation to an afterthought.

But with rising oil prices and growing fears about global warming, public transit is looking sexier to many Americans. As part of 2009’s landmark American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the White House committed $8 billion to efforts to create and maintain high-speed intercity passenger rail service. And just weeks ago, after calling for giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years, Barack Obama pledged another $53 billion to increase the nation’s network of high-speed rail lines.

Plans to expand high-speed rail service are already underway in several U.S. regions. Illinois was the first of 31 states to receive a portion of the funding to begin building high-speed rail lines linking Chicago and St. Louis. A recent report found that high-speed rail in the Midwest would reduce air travel by 1.3 million trips and car travel by 5.1 million trips per year by 2020, saving 188,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions (equivalent to taking 34,000 cars off the road while still getting everyone to and from work).

Funding is also slated to go to California, where trains traveling up to 220 miles per hour will move people between San Diego and San Francisco in less than three hours. California’s high-speed rail system, which should in service by 2020, is expected to cost about half as much as would expanding highways and building new airport runways and gates to accommodate fast growing passenger transportation demand.

Not everyone is on board with high speed rail. Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott recently rejected $2 billion in federal funding to build an 85-mile high speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, arguing that cost overruns would likely leave Florida taxpayers making up billions of dollars for something they don’t need. Scott’s move in killing the Tampa-Orlando run calls into question whether or not Obama can push his plans through in other parts of the country that are also conservative strongholds.

No matter how quickly Americans get up to speed on high speed rail, the U.S. certainly has some catching up to do. According to statistics from the International Union of Railways and other sources, China leads the world with upwards of 2,800 miles of high speed rail lines in operation and another 5,500 miles planned. Spain, France and Japan each have around 1,200 miles in operation; Germany has 800 miles and Italy has 577. The U.S. has only 226 miles in operation currently. The Obama administration would like to see Americans riding on more than 16,000 miles of high speed rail lines by the middle of the century.

CONTACTS: ARRA, www.recovery.gov; International Union of Railways, www.uic.org.

 

Dear EarthTalk: December 2010 marked the 26th anniversary of the infamous Bhopal disaster in India when chemical company Union Carbide leaked deadly gases, killing thousands of people. What safeguards are in place today to prevent incidents like this?   -- Charlene Colchester, via e-mail

EarthTalkBhopal
The December 1984 Union Carbide chemical
spill in Bhopal, India killed 2,259 people
immediately and caused lifelong health prob-
lems and premature death for tens of thousands
more. Pictured: Survivors and their kin march
from Bhopal to Delhi in 2006 demanding com-
pletion of the cleaning of the factory site to stop
toxic chemicals from continuing to poison ground
water.Photo courtesy Joe Athialy, Flickr

Bhopal should have been a wake up call, but it is unclear whether chemical plants around the world are any safer a quarter century after the December 1984 disaster—during which some 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide (now part of Dow Chemical), killing 2,259 people immediately and causing lifelong health problems and premature death for tens of thousands more.

In the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) oversees chemical and other facilities that deal with hazardous materials, making sure various “process safety” routines are followed so as to “prevent or minimize the catastrophic injury or death that could result from an accidental or purposeful release of toxic, reactive, flammable or explosive chemicals.” Also, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security instituted its own “Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards” (CFATS) that chemical and other hazardous materials facilities must follow or be shut down.

While this system has worked pretty well in the U.S. so far, some worry that a Bhopal-scale tragedy, whether due to an accident or terrorist attack, could still occur on American soil. For one, water treatment and port facilities are exempt from CFATS altogether, so some of the nation’s largest chemical facilities are not subject to as rigorous standards as they could be. A 2009 bill that passed the House of Representatives but failed to make it through the Senate addressed this and other issues. Supporters are optimistic that the bill in one form or another could resurface in future legislative sessions.

Of course, what happens in industrial facilities abroad is up to the host country to regulate. And while standards are higher than they used to be in many developing countries today, runaway economic growth often means oversight and enforcement are lacking if nonexistent, so dangerous facilities still threaten people and the environment in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated in the United States.

Advocates for corporate responsibility say that companies should be held accountable for accidents with their materials, whether they occur on home soil or elsewhere, arguing that a double standard presently exists that is much too lenient on multinational corporations operating in developing countries. Martin Khor, executive director of The South Centre, a Geneva-based research group, reports that this double standard also seems to apply to compensatory pay-outs. Union Carbide’s settlement for the Bhopal disaster, for example, was only $470 million, or a few thousand dollars per affected family.

If nothing else, the Bhopal disaster certainly raised awareness around the world about the dangers of modern chemicals, especially those used or manufactured in close proximity to people. Hopefully at least some local governments in developing countries have taken heed and stepped up efforts to site potentially hazardous industrial facilities away from both human population centers and environmentally sensitive landscapes. But, unfortunately, without stronger regulations and enforcement around the world, it may be only a matter of time before another highly lethal accident occurs.

CONTACTS: South Centre, www.southcentre.org.

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