Rail strike again looms, putting chlorine shipments at risk

After averting a strike between railroad operators and labor union representatives in September, another potential strike is again threatening to put water utility supply chains at risk. According to the unions, a strike could begin as early as Dec. 9 unless Congress intervenes.

In a recent report from E&E News, AWWA manager of federal relations Kevin Morley says all utilities would be impacted, also noting a recent letter by the water sector to the White House describing the “significant threat to human health and to the health of the environment.”

Prior to the initial agreement in September, the American Water Works Association, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, National Rural Water Association, National Association of Water Companies, National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and the Water Environment Federation all asked Congress to intervene to sustain freight rail service essential for day-to-day functions.

The associations said in a letter: “Freight rail plays a crucial role in the supply of key chemicals necessary for maintaining essential lifeline functions provided to communities by drinking water and wastewater treatment systems….the disruption of normal freight rail transport of chlorine endangers effective water and wastewater treatment operations. Water systems maintain on-site storage of key treatment chemicals, but reliable chemical supply requires a complete return to normal shipping and delivery of both delayed and anticipated shipments.”

As NACWA noted in September, however, that as long as a possibility of a strike remains, chlorine would likely not be shipped by rail. 

At the time, railroads began to remove shipments of chlorine and other hazardous chemicals from their lines so they would not be left unattended if a work stoppage occurred. Chemicals such as chlorine for water treatment are regulated by the Transportation Security Administration and are required to always be secured.

Utilities are encouraged to monitor their Water/Wastewater Action Networks (WARNs) for additional information.

According to the U.S. EPA, chlorine production capacity in the United States experienced an approximate 10 percent decline (1.2 million tons) in 2021, due primarily to the closure of manufacturing facilities (one OxyChem plant and three Olin Corporation plants). In addition, production at manufacturing facilities has been limited recently due to planned activities (scheduled maintenance, etc.) and unexpected events (fires, power outages, equipment malfunctions, staffing shortages due to COVID-19, etc.). EPA says in some cases, manufacturers have decided to not operate facilities at maximum capacity and/or closed facilities, which has further limited production.

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