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Dangerous cargo

(The following article by James Pilcher was posted on the Cincinnati Enquirer website on March 8.)

CINCINNATI, Ohio -- Every day, thousands of rail cars make their way to the bustling CSX train yard in Queensgate, some carrying chlorine, molten sulfur and liquefied propane.

But the number of rail cars carrying such hazardous materials across the heart of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky could increase by as many as 10,500 a year - all along lines that run within a mile of tens of thousands of homes in the region.

Last month, the Washington, D.C., City Council and mayor enacted a ban on such train cars throughout the district, arguing that the hazardous materials make the area an even bigger terrorist target - with the tracks coming within four blocks of the Capitol.

"This, quite simply, was done to keep people alive," says D.C. council member Kathy Patterson, who sponsored the law that goes into effect April 11.

Legal filings for a possible injunction against the ban are due today in U.S. District Court in Washington.

Hearings are scheduled to begin March 23. The injunction is being sought by Jacksonville, Fla.-based railroad CSX Transportation, which owns both the line through Washington and the 160-acre Queensgate yard near downtown Cincinnati that handles more than 2.1 million cars a year.

And if the injunction is not granted, CSX has said shipments headed up the East Coast could be rerouted through this region.

"Unfortunately, Cincinnati and other lines that way may be the only alternative to this," CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan says, arguing that the ban is a violation of the Constitution's interstate commerce clause.

Ban proponents argue that a January chlorine spill in Graniteville, S.C., is a perfect example of why Washington needs the protection - and how the federal government is failing in its responsibility to regulate the railroads.

Nine died in the leak involving a Norfolk Southern train, and dozens more were hospitalized despite a mass evacuation.

Yet the possibility of more hazardous material being shipped through the heart of our region doesn't alarm emergency officials such as Cincinnati Fire Department District Chief Ed Dadosky, who has taken a leading role in terror-attack preparedness for the region since 9/11.

"We have rails and highways shipping bad stuff to make good stuff - it's just a fact of life," Dadosky says. "We need to put this in perspective. We're talking about less than a half-percent increase in the number of cars total through here on an annual basis, even if we get all the cars they would be rerouting."

Dadosky says he is planning to meet with CSX officials soon to get more particulars, but that first-responders for the city and around the region are prepared for hazardous material spills. He adds that the potential number of additional cars won't force them to buy extra equipment, provide different training or even hire more firefighters.

But Lisa Abney of Lockland says it isn't fair that the ban could further jeopardize her neighborhood. The railroad's tracks run behind the houses across the street from her home.

"We're people, too," Abney, 45, says, pointing out that the trains can be dangerous for another reason, recalling when her son wandered onto the nearby tracks.

Few details from CSX

CSX's Sullivan won't say how many cars containing hazardous material come through Cincinnati or what chemicals are transferred through Queensgate.

Company officials only would list the top five most commonly shipped hazardous materials on CSX's system, and Sullivan says the railroad has not begun rerouting additional shipments here.

The company also has not determined the ban's financial impact on the railroad or its customers - many of whom have no alternative but to use CSX because of special branch lines built especially for them, Sullivan said.

Queensgate handles about 100 trains a day, including 40 belonging to rival Norfolk Southern, which also has lines through the area.

In a filing last month with the federal Surface Transportation Board trying to get the ban lifted, CSX said the Washington ban would affect 10,500 cars a year. The company says it might use lines other than the Cincinnati route for certain shipments, although that has not been finalized.

Cincinnati not the capital

D.C. council member Patterson says she understands that residents of cities such as Cincinnati might not want to shoulder what was Washington's burden.

"Not to take anything away from Cincinnati ... but it is not the nation's capital," she says. "In the end, we did what we thought was right for the district, and each city needs to do its own threat analysis."

Covington Assistant Fire Chief Chuck Norris, whose city also is bisected by the CSX line, says that because the materials are already present, the potential increase would not require any major changes in that city's plans.

"I would like to know exactly what kinds of things will be coming through, and if there is anything new; but otherwise, we're already trained in how to respond and recognize things like this on either the rail or the highway," Norris says.

Advocates for the D.C. ban also cite a similar measure barring such materials from the bridges and tunnels to and from New York City as a legal precedent.

Patterson says CSX is bluffing when it claims the shipments will need to come all the way to Cincinnati, arguing that it could negotiate the use of a nearby Norfolk Southern line.

But CSX's Sullivan argues that the ban could create more danger by extending the distances of shipments, increasing the potential exposure to terror attack or the likelihood of an accident.

In addition, Sullivan says Norfolk Southern has told federal officials that it can't take the extra shipments because its lines are already full. It doesn't want the government to force it to take on shipments from another carrier.

Mixed feelings

Making a comparison between Washington and her own Latonia neighborhood "is a hard question," says Shirley Kroger, 69, a retired day-care worker whose street dead-ends at the tracks.

"I'd hate to see another 9/11 in Washington. And I also don't want to see harsh chemicals coming by my home. But if it came down to Washington and me, I'd rather it be me."

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

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