The juxtaposition was jarring.
In early February, in Northeastern Ohio near the Pennsylvania border, a Norfolk Southern train carrying chemicals and combustible materials, vinyl chloride most notable among them, derailed. A fire erupted as a result of that accident, enveloping the area in black clouds and forcing an evacuation of the nearby communities.
Though human life was thankfully spared in the incident, the resulting spills resulted in thousands of dead fish, and obvious concerns about the long-term environmental health of the area around the site of the derailment. The full effects of the accident will likely not be known for quite some time.
A few days later, I was perusing the website of the World Steel Association (yes, my surfing habits are not particularly titillating) when I saw a big splashy story that had somehow escaped my notice. The State of California is embarking on the nation’s first high-speed rail system, one that will initially connect the Bay Area to Los Angeles, and eventually extend to Sacramento and San Diego. In just three hours, the train will cover the trek from the San Francisco area to LA, a trip that currently takes 10 hours.
The WSA was highlighting the project, of course, because of the enormous amount of steel that will be required to bring this project to fruition. I would imagine an ample supply of aluminum, copper and other favored materials of our community will also be utilized, spreading the proverbial wealth.
The state, however, is touting the economic and environmental impacts. Already 10,000 construction jobs have been created on the project. And when complete and fully operational, the train will prove far less environmentally disruptive than hundreds of cars making that same journey daily.
But the horrific incident in Northeast Ohio highlights that all of these green projects, worthwhile as they may be, are not free of risk or cost. Rail is surely a more environmentally friendly way of transporting goods, but a derailment such as this carries the potential for a far more devastating impact than a single semi accident. Likewise, converting the nation’s transportation fleet from the internal combustion engine/petroleum-using system that has been its foundation for more than 100 years into an electrical grid will likewise come with an environmental cost, be it in the extraction of necessary raw materials to the many unforeseen consequences that accompany any major transformation.
Of course, metals production is, itself, an example of this push-pull. The history of metals manufacturing (and, on some occasions and locations, the present) is rife with environmental misadventures, yet the sustainability of industrial metals is what makes them very much part of any green solution.
But this, as always, should serve as a reminder that caution must be observed and all outcomes explored in any major overhaul to the way things are done.