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D.C. Moves to ban hazardous rail cargo

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Brett Zongker on January 28.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Saying they can't rely on the federal government to eliminate a potential terrorist target near the U.S. Capitol, city lawmakers moved Friday to ban hazardous train cargo downtown.

Nine D.C. Council members signed on to a bill that would keep freight trains carrying chemicals like chlorine from running through the downtown area.

The council is expected to vote on the emergency legislation Tuesday. If passed, it would take effect immediately for 90 days after being signed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who has said he supports it.

The council members cite studies that a terrorist attack on such trains could kill 100,000 people in a few minutes.

"The first line of defense is simply removing the risk," said Ward 3 Councilwoman Kathy Patterson.

Railcars carrying hazardous chemicals pass within four blocks of the Capitol. The headquarters of several cabinet level agencies are even closer to CSX Corp. tracks.

Rerouting hazardous materials "does not reduce the risk," CSX spokesman Gary Sease said. "It transfers that risk somewhere else on the rail network."

But city officials said it would be better to route the materials through rural areas.

"We're saying go around to protect high-threat cities against terrorism," said council consultant Fred Millar of the group Friends of the Earth. "Let's face it, American communities are in blissful ignorance of the dangers."

Earlier this month, a Norfolk Southern train crash in South Carolina left nine people dead, injured hundreds more and forced the evacuation of 5,400 residents when a green-blue chlorine cloud was released into the air.

Many hazardous chemicals are used every day for consumer products, such as pharmaceuticals and water purification, Sease said. He said railroads are the safest transportation mode for such materials.

The Department of Homeland Security won't require trains carrying hazardous and explosive chemicals to be permanently rerouted from the city's core, Patterson said. CSX has told city officials it voluntarily reroutes trains when necessary for security, she said.

But the company won't discuss publicly where or when hazardous materials are transported, Sease said. The railroad wants federal lawmakers to decide how to handle the risk.

"In the world post 9-11, the Department of Homeland Security is the agency we need to look to for guidance," Sease said.

Anticipating legal challenges, Council members obtained an independent legal opinion that they have authority to pass such a measure, and that it would not be pre-empted by federal law.

Monday, January 31, 2005

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