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Opinion: A toxic case in court

(The following editorial appeared on the Washington Post website on April 5.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In passing legislation in February restricting most toxic chemicals from being shipped within 2.2 miles of the Capitol, the District of Columbia acted out of a legitimate concern that a terrorist attack on a train carrying dangerous material such as chlorine gas along the city's 37 miles of rails could kill as many as 100,000 people.

But instead of moving swiftly to address a life-threatening situation in the national capital region, the federal government chose to wage a legal fight with D.C. leaders. For that reason, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan held a closed session yesterday to hear the federal government's lawsuit against the city. Rail operators, joined by the Justice Department, claim that the District's law exceeds the council's authority, is unconstitutional, and thus should be prevented from taking effect next Monday. But Judge Sullivan correctly decided to use yesterday's hearing to look beyond the plaintiff's pleadings to determine whether the federal government does, in fact, have a security plan to protect the nation's capital if trains carrying hazardous materials through the city are subject to terrorist attack. That question has not been answered to the city's satisfaction. Now the obstinate feds must satisfy the court.

The hearing was held behind closed doors because the federal government and the railroad companies contend that security plans should not be discussed in public, which is understandable. But local governments, such as the District, ought to know when highly toxic materials are moving through their jurisdictions as well as how the hazardous cargo will be secured. The District, which plays host to Congress, the White House and the federal judiciary, is a high-risk area, as Sept. 11 will attest. The federal government should be as interested in protecting the District from deadly chemicals as local officials. The public record suggests that squelching the District is the greater priority.

If there is any question about the legitimacy of the city's worries, look no farther than January's freight train derailment in South Carolina in which a chlorine leak left nine people dead, more than 200 injured, and caused about 5,400 residents to be evacuated from their homes. Next, there was the train loaded with anhydrous hydrogen fluoride that got derailed in Pennsylvania three weeks later. Mixed with water, that chemical becomes a corrosive acid. Acts of terrorism? No, and that's the point. Trains carrying deadly materials are themselves deadly when wrecked, whether deliberately or by accident.

The government has a legitimate concern that successful action by the District may spawn similar local bans on rail shipments across the country. But railing against the District is not the answer. The nation needs better federal oversight and regulation of toxic chemical shipments to render them less vulnerable to attack and accident. That could mean tighter rail security. It certainly shouldn't be reason for the federal government to seek showdowns with local communities.

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

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