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Stricter rules sought for shipping hazardous material by train

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Donna de la Cruz on May 2.)

WASHINGTON -- The train whistle blows, the railroad gates come down. Drivers sit impatiently as freight trains rumble within feet of their cars, most not giving a thought to what the trains are hauling.

Four New Jersey mayors say more people should be concerned if the trains are hauling hazardous materials. They're part of a national effort seeking stricter guidelines for such shipments.

The mayors - East Orange Mayor Robert Bowser, Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage, Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith and Piscataway Mayor Brian Wahler - are closely watching a case where a federal judge rejected an attempt by CSX Transportation Inc. to stop the District of Columbia's ban on hazardous rail shipments.

District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams signed the law in February, but the ban has yet to take effect while an appeals court hears arguments.

CSX says if officials in the nation's capital succeed, other municipalities could follow, which would effectively end interstate shipment of hazardous materials.

Municipal officials say they aren't trying to disrupt the flow of business. They say they just want to make sure their residents will be safe.

In January, 51 mayors - including the four New Jersey mayors - sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Homeland security officials asking that freight train operators give municipalities early notification when a train carrying hazardous materials rolls into town, and exactly what's being hauled.

"We just want to know, God forbid, if anything horrible happened with one of those trains, what it's carrying so we can respond to it," Wahler said.

The issue has jumped into the national spotlight. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a head-on collision of two trains in Texas that killed three people and released chlorine gas that sickened dozens in 2004.

At that hearing, the American Association of Railroads said 99.99 percent of hazardous materials carloads arrive at their destination without a release caused by a train accident.

Still, the Texas accident and several others last year have raised concerns about the safety of those trains. Congress held a hearing last week to look into new technology for improving rail safety and security. And in April, Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., introduced a bill requiring stricter rail safety and security measures.

"The cars roll through many (New Jersey) communities and no one knows what's on them. The bottom line is we need to be better prepared," Wahler said.

Wahler said local offices of emergency management, rescue fire personnel, police and other officials should be notified every time a train hauling hazardous materials travels through a community.

Bollwage said he has concerns about security.

"The federal government needs to understand where hazardous materials are going and to make sure necessary security items are in place," Bollwage said. "We're spending an awful lot of money making sure Iraq is secure, we should be making sure the United States is secure."

Bollwage said a national database is needed to tracks where trains are traveling and what they are carrying.

Bowser is calling for a more coordinated effort between the railroad and the state police regarding these trains.

"I'm amazed that terrorists have not attacked it (the railroad system) at all," he said. "It's very vulnerable."

CSX has more than 648 track miles in New Jersey and between 70,000 to 80,000 rail cars come through the state on a yearly basis. The cars distribute a variety of products from food to chemical supplies to the state's 290 industries, CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said.

He said Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX works regularly with emergency responders to make sure they "have an appropriate and a solid understanding of the kinds of materials that are moving, how to deal with those materials, and how to access accurate and timely information should the need arise."

Sullivan said that if CSX had to notify local officials each time a train was coming through their area, the amount of information would overload city officials.

CSX hopes to have its court issues resolved soon, and has the Justice Department on its side. The District of Columbia ban would forbid trains and truck shipments of hazardous materials within about two miles of the U.S. Capitol.

The Justice Department has said such a ban would seriously disrupt the flow of hazardous materials that are vital to public health, the national economy and national security.

Justice Department attorney Douglas Letter said homeland security officials and CSX are working on a multimillion dollar project to protect Washington's rail infrastructure, including adding more surveillance cameras along the corridor.

Monday, May 2, 2005

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