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Hazardous materials rerouted

(The following article by Carol D. Leonnig was posted on the Washington Post website on February 17.)

WASHINGTON -- CSX Transportation officials acknowledged yesterday that when they voluntarily rerouted hazardous-materials shipments last spring from a north-south rail line that passes by the U.S. Capitol, they redirected some of the rail cars onto an east-west line that passes through the District.

The east-west route, known as the B&O line, travels mostly through the Brookland and Eckington neighborhoods of Ward 5.

The railroad company filed suit yesterday in federal court, seeking to overturn a District law that bans the shipping of hazardous materials through the city, just hours after Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said he signed the legislation.

CSX said in company legal papers that the District law, by preventing use of the east-west route, could double the time that hazardous materials spend in transit, making neighborhoods across the country less safe and also inconveniencing train commuters. For a shipment from Galmish, W. Va., to Bayonne, N.J., the normal 581-mile route would become a trip of 1,076 miles if the train could not go through the District, the documents said.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who sponsored the law, said at a news conference yesterday that CSX officials had misled city officials in private briefings last year by assuring them that the legislation was unnecessary and by suggesting that the company was voluntarily rerouting the most dangerous materials to rail lines outside the District's borders.

"At the least, they've misled council members and the Williams administration," Patterson said. "They've been dishonest at the worst. It just proves they're not going to do anything to reroute hazardous materials voluntarily."

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan denied that the company misled the city, saying CSX officials made it clear that they were focused on reducing the volume of hazardous materials traveling on the line near the Capitol.

"There was never an attempt or an intent to mislead," Sullivan said.

In its lawsuit, CSX called the D.C. law "protectionist legislation" that violates constitutional protections for interstate commerce and interferes with the federal government's safety regulations for the rail industry.

"The ordinance . . . invites other local jurisdictions to enact copycat legislation which could, by crazy-quilt coverage, bring to a halt the interstate shipment of critically important materials throughout the United States of America," said the lawsuit, noting that the city's ban covers such commodities as chlorine to disinfect water and propane to heat homes.

The company plans to seek an emergency restraining order to keep the District from enforcing the law.

City officials and environmental groups supporting the ban said the District is unusual because it is a prime target for a terrorist attack. They argue that in a worst-case scenario, the cloud of poisonous gas from the explosion of a rail car carrying chlorine could kill as many as 100,000 people and sicken many more. "[T]he issue is not the 'economic regulation' of CSX, but the safety of hundreds of thousands of the District's residents and visitors," the city wrote in responding to a CSX filing last week that asked the federal government to stop the ban. "CSX's petition is nothing less than an attempt to stop the District's exercise of its broad police powers to protect its citizens from an unprecedented and unique threat ."

Experts in commerce law have questioned whether the city's argument will win, because courts generally have interpreted the Constitution to protect business conducted across state lines from state and local government interference.

Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

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