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D.C. City Council bans hazmat transport

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Brian Westley on February 2.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The D.C. Council yesterday approved emergency legislation that bans train and truck shipments of hazardous materials within about two miles of the Capitol.

The legislation will take effect immediately and remain in place for 90 days if approved by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who has promised to sign it. The measure would ban certain explosives, as well as poisonous gases such as chlorine.
"This is a danger that has been obvious for at least three years, but we remain vulnerable to a terrorist attack," said council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

Mrs. Patterson said the measure is aimed at eliminating "a grave and immediate danger," in which terrorists might attack hazardous shipments, causing the release of deadly chemicals. She said studies have shown that such an attack could create a toxic cloud that spreads for miles. In a worst-case scenario, up to 100,000 people could be killed and the area's economy crippled, she said.

Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican and the only member of the council to vote against the bill, said the measure was unnecessary. She said that CSX Corp., which owns the freight tracks in the city, already is rerouting hazardous materials.

"I also remain very concerned this legislation could be pre-empted by federal law," said Mrs. Schwartz, referring to the concerns of federal rail regulators, who contend that only the federal government has the power to regulate interstate commerce.

A CSX spokesman said the rail operator was reviewing the legislation and would not comment on what steps it planned to take.

In a statement, CSX said yesterday's action by the city "doesn't increase safety at all. In fact, it compromises it." The rail operator warned that in some cases, trains would be forced to travel longer distances, making the routes less safe.

The issue of rail security took on added importance after a chlorine leak last month that followed a train crash in Graniteville, S.C., killing nine persons and forcing the evacuation of 5,400 residents. Proponents of the legislation also cite last week's train derailment in Southern California that killed 11 persons after a suicidal man left his sport utility vehicle parked on the tracks.

"We see the vote as a giant step for public safety for D.C. residents," said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace's toxics campaign, who testified earlier on behalf of the bill. "This sets up permanent legislation both here and nationally."

After the council's action, Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said he planned to reintroduce legislation that would require the Homeland Security Department to reroute the most dangerous materials around densely populated or sensitive areas when a safer route is available. His bill, initially introduced last summer, also seeks to make rail cars more resistant to punctures.

"The reality is, we can't afford not to do so," Mr. Markey said.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

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