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CSX challenges D.C.'s ban on hazardous materials

(The following article by Mimi Hall was posted on the USA Today website on March 22.)

WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital will fight the federal government and the freight-rail industry in court this week over whether the city can ban freight trains from carrying dangerous materials just four blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

Mayors and local leaders nationwide are watching the case closely to see whether they can enact similar bans in their towns. Officials worry that rail cars loaded with chlorine or other potentially deadly substances offer tempting targets for terrorists.

"The lesson we should all take away from 9/11 is that we need to reduce risks," says Kathy Patterson, a member of the Council of the District of Columbia, which passed the first-in-the-nation ban last month.

But rail giant CSX Transportation and the federal departments of Justice, Transportation and Homeland Security plan to ask a federal judge Wednesday to immediately throw out the ban.

They argue that the ban is an unconstitutional violation of the Constitution's Commerce Clause, which says that only Congress can regulate interstate commerce. Barring that, they plan to ask the judge to stop the law from taking effect on April 11 while the case goes to trial.

CSX moves 11,000 hazardous-material rail cars through the city each year. The ban would require CSX to reroute fewer than 5% of them — only the cars containing certain particularly dangerous chemicals and gases — outside a 2.2-mile radius of the Capitol.

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan says that would add 2 million miles of travel a year for rail cars carrying hazardous materials. "At best, you're transferring the risk, and beyond that, we think you're actually increasing the risk," he says.

The CSX lawsuit also says the ban "invites other 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."

Chuck Hughes, president of the Gary (Ind.) Common Council, says three dozen city officials discussed the issue at a recent National League of Cities meeting. All are "watching very closely to see what transpires," he says.

Hughes says he understands that hazardous materials "have to be transported somewhere somehow, but we still have to find a better way than right through the heart of our cities."

In Washington, such shipments on rail lines through the city have been halted voluntarily during certain special events, including the president's annual State of the Union address, which takes place in the Capitol, and a 2003 National Football League festival on the National Mall that featured singer Britney Spears.

CSX also has voluntarily rerouted some cars onto tracks that still go through the city, but not right by the Capitol.

Patterson says she's glad the president and the pop star have been protected from the potential release of deadly chemicals. But she wants permanent protection for Washington's 560,000 residents.

Homeland Security Department officials say they are working with freight-rail companies behind the scenes to tighten security.

Mark Hatfield, spokesman for the department's Transportation Security Administration, says the agency has worked with freight-rail companies to add fences, cameras and other "perimeter surveillance" around tracks. It also has helped train employees, conductors and yard workers to guard against terrorist attacks.

"We work very, very closely with the federal government on the issue," CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan says. "We are constantly consulting and conferring."

But allowing rail cars carrying substances as dangerous as chlorine to rumble through heavily populated areas amounts to "gambling with people's lives," says Rick Hind of the environmental group Greenpeace. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory has estimated that a major chlorine release could kill or injure thousands of people within 30 minutes.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., says rail companies should be required to reroute dangerous shipments whenever a safer route is available. "What we need is a national policy," he says.

The Washington ban was passed Feb. 1, weeks after a train carrying chlorine derailed in Graniteville, S.C. The accident released a green cloud of toxic gas that killed nine people, sent 500 to the hospital and forced the evacuation of 5,000.

After that accident, mayors of 51 cities — including Las Vegas, Baltimore, Tallahassee, Providence and Chicago — sent a letter to then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge asking for advance notice when shipments containing hazardous materials are going to be moved through their cities.

"More than 90,000 shipments of chlorine alone are transported across the country each year," the letter said. "Our citizens should have a reasonable expectation that hazardous materials are being shipped in the safest manner possible and that local first responders are aware of such shipments in advance."

The Homeland Security Department opposes such notification on the grounds that it would be impractical and could compromise security. Augusta, Ga., Mayor Bob Young says he doesn't buy that argument. "Cities handle sensitive information from the Department of Homeland Security every day without compromise," he says. "To me, that's simply not an issue."

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

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