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Las Vegas mayor worried about possible rail car disasters

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on April 17.)

LAS VEGAS -- On a windy April day, 20 railroad tank cars hauling everything from liquid weed killer to butane and highly flammable alcohol sat on a sidetrack in downtown Las Vegas.

Ten miles away, 16 more tank cars, each of which can hold tens of thousands of gallons of hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, were waiting for an engine to pull them away from Union Pacific's switchyard.

There was nothing to stop someone from walking along those tracks close enough to touch them.

It is this daily presence of poisonous, flammable and potentially explosive rail cargo that has Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and at least 50 other mayors across the country demanding more emergency response information from railroad regulators and the Department of Homeland Security.

A disaster looms, they say, whether it be from a derailment or would-be terrorists armed with wire cutters and toting a backpack of high explosives.

"I don't think anybody can rest easy if they think these toxic substances are in their back yards," Goodman said.

His comment came in an interview about the legal battle in Washington, D.C., that pits the government-backed rail industry against the District of Columbia City Council, which passed a ban on shipping hazardous materials within two miles of the Capitol.

A decision from U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan regarding the constitutionality of the ban is expected any day.

"Much will be resolved by the litigation taking place," Goodman said. "We'll get a good read on how much power we have to regulate the rails."

Goodman said he has attempted to find out about hazardous rail cargo coming through Las Vegas, but "the government thumbs their nose at us and refuses to tell us when and where."

He found out through the media about a Dec. 31, 2003, safety inspection by the Federal Railroad Administration that reportedly found a lack of rail security precautions around Las Vegas but no terrorism risk during heightened awareness about a terrorism threat that New Year's Eve.

The Federal Railroad Administration declined to make the safety inspection report immediately available last week, and city officials had not seen it.

However, George Gavalla, a former associate administrator for safety at the Federal Railroad Administration, told The New York Times that when he sent an inspector to Las Vegas on New Year's Eve 2003, he found a number of tank cars possibly containing chlorine and poisonous gases unguarded.

At a rail yard near some hotels, no train crew members challenged the inspector's presence or even talked to him.

Goodman is one of 51 mayors who backed a Jan. 18 letter to Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge calling for advance information about hazardous materials shipments through their cities.

A Union Pacific Railroad spokesman said the company realizes that railroads are vulnerable, but the notification task would be too cumbersome.

"That's really not practical," said John Bromley, Union Pacific's spokesman in Omaha, Neb. "We could do it, but it would drown municipalities in paperwork. There would be so much data that it would be ineffective to use it. You would have to have responders at the tracks around the clock."

Bromley said Union Pacific does have security personnel at certain locations, and employees are instructed to report suspicious activity.

Monday, April 18, 2005

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