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CSX challenges D.C. ban on rail hazmats

(The following article by Eric M. Weiss was posted on the Washington Post website on February 9.)

WASHINGTON -- CSX Corp. is challenging the District's 90-day ban on railroad shipments of hazardous materials that pass through the city, arguing that it is an unconstitutional restriction of interstate commerce.

The railroad company has asked the federal Surface Transportation Board to suspend the ban. The board, a quasi-independent regulatory board charged with resolving rate and service disputes, is the successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission.

The action could be the precursor to lengthy and expensive legal wrangling. Robert J. Spagnoletti, attorney general for the District, told the D.C. Council yesterday he was already planning an "aggressive battle" to defend the ban against administrative and legal challenges. It will take more money, he said, because his department has allocated its $4 million litigation budget.

Proponents of the ban, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and a majority of the D.C. Council, say it is necessary to protect the nation's capital from terrorism.

"I think that it should play out through the system," Williams said yesterday, referring to the legal challenge. "I believe we need to protect our people, and I believe this gets an important issue on the agenda nationally."

Opponents say the legal challenge is precisely what they predicted.

"It took exactly a week for the real issue of the cost to come up," said council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large). She voted against the ban and had argued that railroad and federal officials had voluntarily rerouted hazardous rail cargo. She said the cost of the legal fight should have been considered when the council considered the ban.

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 materials, 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.

In its filing, CSX acknowledged that since last spring, it has voluntarily rerouted shipments of hazardous materials that usually travel through the city on its Interstate 95 line and continues to confer with federal homeland security officials on that and other security measures.

At the same time, the CSX filing argues that carrying out the District's ban would cause great inefficiencies and hardship on its rail network while creating little additional security. The railroad said rerouting would require sending the materials west of the Appalachian Mountains through Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio.

"I guess two different people were writing it: one who said they are already doing [the ban] and another who said it was impossible to do," said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3).

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

Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

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