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CSX 'double standard' decried

(The following article by Spencer S. Hsu was posted on the Washington Post website on February 18.)

WASHINGTON -- The rerouting of hazardous material shipments from a downtown rail line to one through Northeast Washington reflects a double standard for security by CSX Transportation and federal officials, exposing residents in neighborhoods to greater risk than federal workers, a spokeswoman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday.

CSX disclosed the rerouting Wednesday as it filed suit to overturn a new D.C. law banning shipments by road or rail of certain hazardous chemicals, flammable gases and explosives from a 2.2-mile radius around the U.S. Capitol. Shippers are exempted in emergencies, or if they can show there is no viable alternative route, or in case of emergency.

CSX said that since April, it has redirected some of the estimated 10,500 full and empty rail cars carrying hazardous materials that pass through the District each year, moving them from a north-south rail line that passes near the Capitol to an east-west line that follows the MARC commuter line rights-of-way through the Brookland and Eckington neighborhoods. Those routes would be banned under the legislation, which the District was set to begin enforcing March 14.

Sharon Gang, a spokeswoman for Williams (D), said the company's disclosure brings to mind the 2001 anthrax crisis. In October of that year, federal medical experts screened and distributed antibiotics to congressional workers who potentially were exposed to an anthrax-filled letter on Capitol Hill, yet deferred action for postal workers who sorted the letter at the Brentwood mail facility.

"Citizens in Wards 4 and 5 were on the verge of being treated unfairly, in some ways like the Brentwood postal workers," Gang said, "whereas the people downtown or closer to the Capitol were theoretically more protected with the routes that CSX was planning to take."

Rail company officials said the rerouting was based on a conclusion by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration that a terrorist strike on the north-south rail line -- because it crosses the Potomac River, runs parallel to the Mall and comes within four blocks of the Capitol -- posed a greater danger than an attack on the east-west line.

"We have gone over all of our operations in the District with the federal officials who deal with security," said Robert T. Sullivan, CSX regional vice president for public affairs. "They determined with us that the focus needed to be on the north-south line. At no time was the east-west line ever considered to be a risk in the way that people have looked at the north-south line."

A Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman said no one was available to comment yesterday afternoon.

An official familiar with rail operations, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of policies against discussing security measures, said that for high-security events such as the State of the Union Address and the presidential inauguration, federal officials have asked CSX to halt operations only on the north-south line, and not the east-west line.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who sponsored the ban, said Wednesday that CSX misled city officials by suggesting in private briefings last year that the company voluntarily was rerouting the most dangerous materials to rail lines outside the District's borders. Sullivan said there was no intent or effort to mislead.

Gang said yesterday that the mayor did not feel misled and that he was skeptical of claims that dangerous cargo no longer was going through the city. But Gang said that the council member who opposed the ban, Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), based her argument on such assurances. "I think Schwartz was misled. She's the one who's been out there," Gang said. Schwartz did not return telephone calls yesterday.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle scheduled arguments March 9 on CSX's request for a preliminary injunction.

The federal government this week criticized the D.C. ban. On Wednesday, the Department of Transportation sent a memo to the Surface Transportation Board -- a regulatory body from which CSX has sought a ruling -- stating that the ban is preempted by federal law, which leaves interstate commerce regulation to the U.S. government.

In court papers, CSX officials said the ban would increase the threat to other communities by forcing cars carrying hazardous materials to travel 2 million more miles a year. They said safety of the U.S. rail system should be decided based on "the national interest, not just the parochial interest of one jurisdiction."

Friday, February 18, 2005

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