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Appeals court halts D.C. ban

(The following article by Frank James was posted on the Chicago Tribune website on April 20.)

WASHINGTON -- To drivers and pedestrians around the country, the pitch-black railroad tank cars that daily roll through cities to deliver chlorine, liquid propane and various chemicals to American industry are just a part of the background scenery.

But since Sept. 11, mayors and city councils as well as fire and police officials have feared that a terrorist attack could transform these cars carrying poisonous substances into weapons of mass destruction that would unleash toxic chemical fumes. In a densely populated city, such a release could kill and injure thousands of people within minutes.

The District of Columbia had moved to ban trains and trucks carrying certain hazardous materials such as chlorine and liquid propane from passing through the city. But a federal appeals court on Tuesday temporarily blocked the district's ban from taking effect until it could hear arguments about the ordinance, which is being watched by states and cities nationwide, including some considering their own bans.

Some say the issue is likely to go to the Supreme Court. The Bush administration and congressional Republicans have weighed in against the ban.

Fresh in Washington city officials' minds when considering the ban was January's deadly train accident in Graniteville, S.C. Eight people died after chlorine escaped from a ruptured tank car.

CSX Transportation, a unit of CSX Corp., the company that operates the freight trains that pass within blocks of the U.S. Capitol, had sought the injunction, arguing that the ordinance usurped the federal government's power over interstate commerce.

"CSX believes that left unchallenged, the district's law could establish a precedent that could lead to a patchwork of similar laws that could virtually shut down rail transportation of critical commodities in the United States," the company said in a statement.

Philadelphia and California are considering similar bans.

Chicago officials haven't openly talked of a similar ban. People knowledgeable about the situation say many shipments of hazardous material are rerouted around Chicago because of rail traffic congestion in the city.

`High-threat target'

District of Columbia officials say they felt they had no alternative but to force CSX to reroute trains around the city.

"The city is sensitive to the fact that we're a high-threat target city," said Kathleen Patterson, the district City Council member who spearheaded the ban.

She and others believed the ban was justified by analyses such as an estimate from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory indicating that if a chlorine tank ruptured near the National Mall when the area was crowded with visitors, as many as 100,000 people could die within 30 minutes of exposure to the chemical.

Given such potential devastation, city officials were dissatisfied with Homeland Security Department officials' response, Patterson said.

That response consisted of adding surveillance cameras and other measures around the area near the tracks.

But city officials wanted to go further, especially with the district widely thought to be a target for terrorists. If it was important enough for homeland security officials to reroute hazardous materials away from downtown Washington in 2003 when Britney Spears performed at a National Football League season kickoff event on the National Mall, then such rerouting should be done as a matter of course, they reasoned.

Federal officials argue they have moved forcefully on the issue. "The Department of Homeland Security is taking aggressive measures," working with state and local governments as well as private-sector companies, said Michelle Petrovich, an agency spokeswoman.

The district was joined in its efforts to ban the chemical shipments by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. Patterson credits the groups with bringing the issue to her attention.

Those groups have argued that many Washington policymakers have sided with the railroad and chemical industries, which wield clout because of campaign contributions.

"We're gambling with the lives of millions of people because we have bureaucrats who are timid about taking on an industry that has profitable alternatives to almost everything they're doing," said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace.

CSX: Security upgraded

CSX officials understand such concerns, said a spokesman, adding that CSX has reassessed and upgraded security since Sept. 11, often working closely with federal officials.

The company voluntarily reduced hazardous chemical shipments away from tracks near the Capitol after last year's train bombings in Madrid, said Robert Sullivan, a CSX spokesman.

But a ban is problematic, said Sullivan, because it could trigger a domino effect of similar, not-in-my-back yard prohibitions in other cities, a trend that could eventually cripple U.S. commerce, he said.

"You can't have individual communities or states in effect putting their hands up and saying `We're going to enjoy the fruits of interstate commerce system but it cannot bring these materials through our communities . . . ' Basically what you do is open the system to chaos. That's not a good thing."

Tank cars are made to withstand damage from accidents and even rounds shot from handguns and rifles, experts said. Their containment abilities would be less likely to survive a bomb, rocket-propelled grenade or other ordnance.

District of Columbia officials said they were willing to compromise with the rail industry. Like officials in other cities, they've asked federal officials and the railroad industry to, at a minimum, establish a policy of alerting city officials ahead of time about potentially dangerous shipments headed their way so local fire and police departments could at least prepare.

In January, mayors of 49 cities, including Chicago's Richard Daley, signed a letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta requesting such advance notice.

But the railroad industry says it would be impractical to notify every city each time shipments of hazardous materials were due to pass through.

Cities "would be so inundated with information, [they'd] begin to ignore it," said Tom White, an Association of American Railroads spokesman.

Such warnings might inadvertently help terrorists stage attacks, he said, noting that the more widely disseminated such information is, the better chance for it to be obtained by unauthorized individuals.

If nothing else, Washington officials hope they have sped up action toward a clear national policy. "We need to do what we need to do locally," Patterson said. "And if as a side benefit it pushes national action, that's all for the good."

Thursday, April 21, 2005

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