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90-day hazmat ban is passed in D.C.

(The following article by Eric M. Weiss and Spencer S. Hsu was posted on the Washington Post website on February 2.)

WASHINGTON -- The D.C. Council yesterday approved a temporary ban on shipments of hazardous materials through the nation's capital, becoming the first jurisdiction in the nation to halt such cargo in response to the threat of terrorism.

Council members, who approved the 90-day emergency legislation 10 to 1, said reassurances from federal officials were not enough to safeguard residents. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said through a spokesman that he will sign the bill as soon as possible.

Although the legislation does not require congressional review, the council is also considering a bill for a permanent ban, which would be subject to review by Congress.

The D.C. action sets up a potential legal battle with rail giant CSX Corp., which owns and operates the major freight line that runs through the city, passing within four blocks of the U.S. Capitol. Senior federal officials opposed the action, noting that they have pushed CSX to voluntarily reroute dangerous materials. But the officials have declined to make public exactly what safeguards are being taken.

"This is the nation's capital, and we need the toxics out," said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), the measure's chief sponsor.

A CSX rail line in the District moves 8,500 chemical cars a year through the city, though only a fraction of those chemicals are toxic when inhaled. The legislation bans the most dangerous types of material, including certain classes of explosives, flammable gases and poisonous gases and materials. It also requires all rail and truck firms carrying other hazardous materials to obtain permits from the city's Transportation Department. Ban advocates say they expect about 5 to 10 percent of rail shipments to fall under the prohibition.

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

Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) cast the only vote against the measure. Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was at a funeral and did not vote.

Schwartz, who is chairman of the council's public works committee, said CSX officials privately assured her that the company has been rerouting the most dangerous cargo since the Madrid train bombing in March. Therefore, she said, the legislation is unnecessary and would trigger a legal battle.

"We are better served by cooperating with the feds rather than by confronting them," Schwartz said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Transportation issued separate statements suggesting that federal and industry officials have taken safety measures that go beyond the D.C. ban but declined to say what material is being rerouted.

"We will also continue to explore other options that might be available with regards to routes for transporting hazardous materials through the national Capital region," the Department of Transportation said.

The Transportation Security Administration last year conducted a security study and hazardous material response plan for 42 miles of rail corridor in the Washington area. It is implementing a $7 million long-term plan for low-tech measures such as fencing and added patrols as well as more sophisticated safeguards, including intrusion detection systems and video surveillance.

The rail industry and transportation lawyers have closely watched the D.C. legislation. Although the consensus of legal analysts is that the law would not pass a federal court challenge, it feeds a national debate about the power of communities to control the flow of toxic shipments, spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and by recent rail accidents.

Spokesman Robert T. Sullivan said CSX had grave reservations about the bill but stopped short of promising a legal challenge.

"We will review it again and make a determination about exactly what to do," Sullivan said. "But when you get into cities dictating how commodities can move, it frustrates interstate commerce.''

Industry groups reiterated that shipping hazardous materials by rail is generally safer than using trucks. They noted that chemicals such as chlorine are used to purify half of the nation's water systems and predicted that a D.C. ban would set off a series of prohibitions that would cripple the U.S. rail system.

A coalition of environmental, labor and civic groups, mobilized to pass the ban, called it a landmark.

"This is probably the most important vote D.C. Council members will ever take," said Rick Hind, legislative director of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign, which mounted a two-year lobbying effort to pass the ban with Friends of the Earth and the local Sierra Club.

Ultimately, whether the city will be allowed to implement a permanent ban may be decided by Congress, which has been reluctant to impose new restrictions on the rail industry since 2001, analysts said.

"Congress may feel compelled to say there are certain circumstances where we shouldn't let materials like this go close to particular sites," said James B. Reed, transportation program director for the National Council of State Legislatures. "But under existing law, it would probably be preempted under a court challenge.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

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