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Opinion: Next time, terror could ride the rails

(The following editorial by Marc Fisher was posted on the Washington Post website on July 15.)

WASHINGTON -- The government's list of items you may not bring aboard an airplane includes ski poles, pliers, toy transformer robots and hockey sticks. However, CSX and other railroads are welcome to run 90-ton tank cars filled with deadly, highly explosive chlorine right through Washington and its suburbs.

Why is there such an enormous gap in security standards between air and rail? Because the 9/11 attackers used airplanes. After terrorists assault our railroads, we'll be happy to secure that sector of the transport network.

According to a Naval Research Laboratory study, if terrorists hit a single chlorine car of the sort that rolls through from Alexandria to Silver Spring virtually every day, about 100,000 Washington area residents would die within half an hour as the toxic cloud spread as much as 14 miles.

So naturally, you'd think our local officials would be on the warpath to halt the flow of dangerous chemicals on the rail lines that carry freight through Prince George's, Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties, Alexandria and the District. After all, it would be simple to reroute hazardous freight onto the major rail line that parallels Interstate 81 in the rural corridor from Hagerstown, Md., through the Shenandoah Valley -- a region low on any terrorist's target list.

For many months, Fred Millar, an emergency planning consultant in Arlington, has been warning local governments about the danger posed by rail cars transporting chlorine and other dangerous chemicals, highly flammable gases and explosives.

"This has become a real passion for me because it seems like such a no-brainer," said Millar, who has been pushing for the restrictions on behalf of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

Most of the officials Millar approaches agree that something should be done. But they worry that any unilateral ban on the transport of hazardous chemicals through their turf would bring the wrath of the federal government and the railroad industry down upon them. Emergency planners in Montgomery and Fairfax "wanted to know if I could get them the money to defend themselves after the railroads sue them," he said.

So the answer Millar gets is: Let's see what the District does. After all, Washington is the theoretical ground zero for a terrorist attack, so it stands to reason that the District would act first. A bill Millar helped write creating a two-mile-wide no-hazards zone around the Mall has won support from D.C. Council members Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), but the council put off action until federal Homeland Security bosses release a study of the vulnerability of the area's rail system. The agency has twice delayed release of that report; today is the latest deadline.

Meanwhile, Millar has found sympathy among Homeland Security officials; visiting their offices in Crystal City, he was surprised to find posted on the wall a chilling photo he uses in his presentations. It shows a chlorine tanker passing by the Capitol dome.

So far, the Bush administration has shown slim interest in rerouting rail freight. After railroad lobbyists objected, a proposed federal rule that would have required carriers to include routing alternatives in their security plans was altered to remove any reference to routing.

The rail industry has made threatening noises about suing anyone who dares to interfere with their commerce. Yet such limits are legal; New York City's long-standing ban on trucks carrying hazardous materials withstood court challenges even before terrorism became an issue.

At a D.C. Council hearing, CSX testified that routing hazardous material away from Washington actually increases danger because it "increases cargo handling, switching and trip duration." Federal rail administrators objected to any local ban because it would shift the risk to some other community.

But that evades the point: Washington is a target. Other rail routes go through places that aren't.

If you need proof of how easy it is to sabotage a rail car, watch the trains crossing the Potomac on the Long Bridge (which runs parallel to the 14th Street bridge). Many cars are covered with graffiti. Those weren't railroad employees wielding the spray cans.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

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