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D.C.'s ban on hazardous freight resonates locally, nationally

(The following article by Michael Dresser was posted on the Baltimore Sun website on February 5.)

BALTIMORE, Md. -- When the District of Columbia Council approved a ban this week on shipments of certain dangerous chemicals through Washington, supporters hailed it as a model for Baltimore and other cities.

The Bush administration and the railroad industry call it an unwise and probably unconstitutional invasion of federal turf that could compromise rather than enhance public safety by, among other things, making the materials travel on longer routes.

Whatever view prevails, the district council's 10-1 vote has focused the attention of industry and municipal officials on the issue of rail safety after last month's Norfolk Southern chlorine tank car derailment that killed nine in Graniteville, S.C.

"There's a great national dialogue that's going on right now, and what happened in D.C. this week just advances this dialogue," said Mayor Bob Young of Augusta, Ga., 10 miles from Graniteville.

The measure is the first since Sept. 11, 2001, to attempt to deal at the municipal level with concerns about a possible terrorist attack on chemicals in transit. While supporters insist it is a serious effort to protect Washington residents, it appears to have just as much to do with prodding Congress and the Bush administration to take stronger action on rail safety.

"I'm certainly hoping that it will be part of a more productive debate nationally," said Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, the measure's sponsor. "I'm hoping that the Congress will take up its responsibilities."

Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said other cities will follow Washington's lead if the federal government doesn't order hazardous shipments rerouted from crowded neighborhoods. "I expect the D.C. council vote to be the first, but not the last, vote of its kind," said Markey, who plans to file a bill to require rerouting trains that carry dangerous materials when there's a better alternative.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, said any rerouting of CSX Transportation rail traffic around Washington could have an effect in Baltimore, where the main CSX East Coast line runs through the Howard Street tunnel.

CSX, like most railroads, declines to divulge details of where and when it ships hazardous chemicals except in the vaguest terms. But Washington-area activists who support the district legislation said CSX has been routing shipments to the west of the capital for months under an informal understanding with Washington officials.

If such a diversion were to continue as a matter of law, Baltimore's through-traffic in the substances could decrease, said Greg Hind, legislative director for the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign.

"It's a good bet it would go around Baltimore unless it was destined for Baltimore," he said.

The district's legislation, which Mayor Anthony Williams has said he will sign, applies to flammable and explosive chemicals, as well as ones that can be toxic when inhaled.

The emergency measure would ban the rail shipment of such chemicals within two miles of the Capitol for 90 days. Technically it applies to all freight transport, but trucks generally bypass the city on the Capital Beltway. The main CSX rail line, which passes about four blocks from the Capitol, would fall under the ban.

Council members expressed concern that chemical trains passing through Washington could be an especially inviting target for terrorists.

By passing the ban as a temporary measure, the council may be able to avoid a congressional override. Congress has the power to overrule the permanent ban supporters plan to seek.

The initial reaction of CSX and the administration indicates that the matter could end up in court before it ever gets to Congress.

The U.S. Department of Transportation released a statement after the council vote saying the measure may violate the Constitution and federal law.

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said the railroad will take "appropriate steps" after reviewing the legislation.

"The action by the district does not increase safety or security at all. In fact, it compromises it," he said.

Fred Millar, a consultant to Friends of the Earth who worked with the council on the measure, expressed confidence it would hold up in court. He said the council secured an opinion from a Washington law firm that the legislation does not violate the Constitution's commerce clause or pre-empt federal law.

"We think we have a very strong position on this, and other major cities have to step up to the plate," he said. Millar expressed disappointment that O'Malley and the Baltimore City Council haven't taken a more active stance on the issue.

But Guillory, O'Malley's spokeswoman, said Baltimore officials have been keeping a close eye on the district council's handling of the issue.

"It's by far not over yet, and we'll continue watching and see how this plays out," she said.

Monday, February 7, 2005

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