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Louisville mayor seeks better security in rail yards

(The following article by James Bruggers was posted on the Courier-Journal website on December 5.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Louisville Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson is calling on the federal government to tighten requirements for railroad facilities where especially hazardous chemicals are parked or stored.

In a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation officials, the mayor also joined police and firefighters across the nation in opposing efforts to eliminate placards that identify hazardous materials inside railroad cars.

And Abramson said cars that contain toxic chemicals should not be allowed to park indefinitely in rail yards and spurs near industrial areas.

His comments were among those from dozens of individuals, groups and businesses that the Transportation Department recently made public in response to several potential changes in railroad security regulations.

But the government has so far declined to release written comments from the railroad industry.

The American Association of Railroads, an industry lobbying group, stamped its letter "sensitive security information," a category of secrecy used increasingly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Lawyers from the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation preliminarily decided the letters should be released but still are reviewing the matter, said Joe Dalcambre, a Transportation Department spokesman.

Dalcambre said he doesn't know how long that review will take.

Meanwhile, the public — and democracy — loses out by not having an open debate "over what makes us safe," said Rick Blum, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of more than 30 organizations.

Blum argues that if some of what the industry included in its letter needs to remain confidential, federal lawyers should edit that information and make the rest public.

Tom White, a railroad association spokesman, said some information in its letter to the agency would jeopardize lives if publicized. He did not elaborate.

He did say, however, that the industry does not favor getting rid of the placard system until a suitable alternative is found.

That's a different stance than one White expressed to The Courier-Journal in early September, when he criticized the placards as giving terrorists too much information, and said the industry was urging the government to get rid of the placards.

White said this week that he "may have misspoken" in his earlier comments.

He also said the industry would oppose a requirement that federal officials formally review railroad companies' security plans because companies already have a good "give and take" with the government.

The two federal departments raised the possibility of regulatory changes in a notice published earlier this year, including the idea of removing the placards, even though a federal study last year recommended they remain.

The mayor's letter, with at least three others from Louisville, was among about 100 the transportation agency has posted on its Web site.

Abramson spokesman Matt Kamer said the mayor's health, environmental and emergency response administrators "felt strongly" that metro government should weigh in.

Rail security has been a point of contention for years among some Louisville residents who live near rail yards, but increasingly since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The mayor wrote that the community's greatest risk from toxic chemicals is from "routine handling, transfer and storage of these materials" and not international terrorists.

"Therefore, any regulatory changes need to be balanced and err on the side of safety rather than the possible but less probable terrorist event," he wrote.

Monday, December 6, 2004

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