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D.C.'s ban on hazardous trains may raise risks in nearby states

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on February 21.)

HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- A newly passed ordinance barring rail shipments of hazardous materials through the District of Columbia raises the risk of a catastrophic accident or terrorist attack in Maryland and other nearby states as the dangerous cargo is rerouted around the nation's capital, railroad officials say. CSX Corp., the train operator most affected by the law that Washington Mayor Tony A. Williams signed Wednesday, says that unless the measure is reversed, it will likely cause backups and bunching of chemical tank cars at its rail yards in Baltimore, Cumberland, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va. - places where hazardous cargo would be segregated and diverted to outlying routes.

"Such an aggregation of standing tank cars may very well present a greater security risk than individual cars moving in numerous trains," CSX warned in a petition asking the federal Surface Transportation Board to strike down the law. The emergency ordinance, which CSX also is challenging in court, bans "ultra-hazardous shipments" within 2.2 miles of the Capitol for at least 90 days.

Two trade groups, the Association of American Railroads and the National Industrial Transportation League, concurred with CSX and added in separate filings that the need for emergency preparedness would increase in small cities along hundreds of miles of alternate, less suitable rail lines.

"These consequences of forcing traffic over alternate routes are likely to actually increase exposure - and therefore reduce safety and security - as well as imposing added costs on our economy," the Association of American Railroads said.

D.C. said in its response to CSX's petition that such costs and delays are balanced by the benefit of avoiding a terrorist attack on the nation's capital.

In Cumberland, 140 miles northwest of Washington, Allegany County Emergency Services Director Richard DeVore said he's concerned about the measure's impact but confident he could summon the resources to respond to a hazardous-materials disaster

Maryland Emergency Management Agency Director John W. Droneburg also expressed confidence in the safeguards and enhancements to emergency preparedness implemented since the terrorist attacks of 2001. But, like city officials in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Richmond, Droneburg said the potential effects of the ordinance deserve closer study.

"If it really transpires that these things can't go through the district, it's going to take some time to assess which shipments are going to go which way," he said.

In Hagerstown, a Western Maryland city with a rich railroad history 70 miles from Washington, emergency-response planners expect an increase in hazmat shipments if the ordinance stands. Two alternate north-south routes have been mentioned during the debate - one owned by CSX west of the Appalachian Mountains that runs through Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, and another owned by Norfolk Southern Corp. that runs through Hagerstown between Harrisburg, Pa., and Manassas, Va.

"One would believe, just simply from a travel-time standpoint, that Hagerstown would be a more attractive route," said Washington County Emergency Services Chief Joe Kroboth.

Norfolk Southern, in a filing supporting CSX's petition, acknowledged that its lines "would be the only feasible alternative routing for most, if not all of this traffic." But the company also said it wouldn't consent to having CSX's hazardous cargo diverted to its lines.

Virtually all the filings opposing the ordinance, including one by the U.S. Department of Transportation, say that if the district is allowed to ban such shipments, other communities will likely follow suit, potentially blocking the safe and efficient movement of hazardous cargo.

Kroboth said he needs more solid information, not rhetoric.

"What we need to be able to do is have the knowledge of what really is the real threat so we can determine whether there is any gap between the threat and our capabilities," he said.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

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