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D.C. Council rejects hazmat measure

(The following article by Spencer S. Hsu and Yolanda Woodlee was posted on the Washington Post website on November 10.)

WASHINGTON -- The D.C. Council rejected legislation yesterday that would have barred railroads from shipping hazardous materials through the nation's capital, defusing a standoff with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and CSX Corp.

Minutes before the vote, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said he would not sign the bill if it passed, though the mayor had said the opposite two weeks ago. The spokesman cited concern that the measure would not have withstood a court challenge by the federal agency or the railroad, both of which opposed the bill.

The vote on the first hazmat rail ban by any U.S. city had been watched closely by rail carriers, the shipping industry and environmental activists. They saw it as a high-profile test of the Department of Homeland Security's ability, three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to secure chemical shipments while minimizing the cost to industry and taxpayers.

In the end, the proposed D.C. ban -- an emergency bill that needed the support of nine of the 13 council members -- failed on a 5 to 5 vote. Backers of the legislation said they would try again as soon as Nov. 23 or in January.

Opponents of the bill said CSX has already agreed to reroute the most dangerous freight from its Washington line at the Bush administration's request. They also said federal law prohibits states or the District from unilaterally restricting interstate commerce and accused the bill's backers of trying to embarrass the president.

"There is an agenda here, and the agenda is to make the administration look bad in this area, and it is a national agenda," said Carol Schwartz (At Large), the council's lone Republican, who voted against the bill, which she had co-sponsored."We're already rerouting the trains."

Co-sponsor Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) disagreed, saying that the voluntary rerouting could not be confirmed or enforced.

"We have not yet addressed the single most serious threat facing this city, the continued shipment of highly toxic chemicals through the District of Columbia," Patterson said.

The vote follows a year of study and talks between city officials and federal regulators, who have briefed D.C. and congressional committees on a pending $6 million security plan for 42 miles of Washington area rail track that will include additional surveillance technology and monitoring by law enforcement.

The Department of Homeland Security disclosed last month that CSX has diverted shipments of the most dangerous chemicals and explosives since the March 11 commuter train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people.

CSX moves 8,500 chemical cars through Washington each year, though only a fraction of those chemicals are toxic when inhaled, such as chlorine and sulfur dioxide.

A chief U.S. Naval Research Laboratory scientist projected that a worst-case release from a 90-ton tanker car of chlorine during the Independence Day celebration on the Mall could kill 100 people per second and 100,000 in 30 minutes.

Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and members Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) and Patterson voted in favor of the measure. Harold Brazil (D-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), Sandy Allen (D-Ward 7) and Schwartz voted against it. Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) voted present, Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) left early because of illness, and David A. Catania (I-At Large) recused himself because his law firm is retained by CSX.

In other action yesterday, the council unanimously approved legislation raising the minimum wage from $6.15 an hour to $6.60 beginning Jan. 1. A year later, it will increase to $7 an hour.

"It puts us near the top tier of minimum wages across the country," said Catania, who sponsored the legislation. "In excess of 3,500 employees in the District will see an increase in their income."

The council also approved making April 16, the date President Abraham Lincoln freed all slaves in the District, a legal city holiday. The holiday will fall on a Saturday next year, and Williams has allocated $1 million for overtime and holiday pay. Officials said they did not have an estimate on what the city's cost would be when the holiday falls on a weekday.

Since 2000, the District has allowed city workers to use paid or unpaid leave to celebrate the holiday. Supporters of the measure to create an official holiday said that closing schools would allow students to become involved in parades, oratorical contests and other events held that day.

"I've been waiting on this four years," said Orange, the measure's sponsor. "I'm elated."

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

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