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Opinion: Corporate Profit vs. Public Safety

(The following editorial was posted on the New York Times website on June 20.)

NEW YORK -- One of the first steps any sane person would take to guard against terrorism is to stop rail tankers filled with deadly chemicals from passing within a few blocks of the Capitol. If a rail tanker was attacked in downtown Washington, it could put every member of Congress - and much of the rest of the city - at risk of instant death. But the railroad industry, concerned with saving money, has blocked reasonable rules for the transport of extremely hazardous materials. Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, has just introduced a bill to fix this disturbing hole in our national defense. Every member of the Senate and House should be supporting it.

One of the deadliest terrorist scenarios the Department of Homeland Security has come up with is an attack on a 90-ton rail tanker filled with chlorine. As many as 100,000 people could be killed or injured in less than 30 minutes. The simplest way of reducing the risk is banning rail tankers with deadly materials from areas that are likely terrorist targets. The Washington City Council recently did just that, banning hazardous materials from being transported within 2.2 miles of the Capitol without special permission. But CSX, the railroad giant, got a federal court to block the law from taking effect.

Other cities are considering following Washington's lead, as well they should. But city-by-city legislation will not solve this problem. The railroads will argue, as CSX did in its suit against Washington, that city governments do not have the authority to regulate them. And in any case, defending the country from a terrorist attack on hazardous materials requires a single national strategy, coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security.

Senator Biden's bill, though not perfect, would go a long way toward making the nation safer. It would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a list of extremely hazardous materials, and to designate "high-threat corridors" that because of dense population, strategic importance or other factors are particularly likely to be terrorist targets. In most cases, railroads would be required to reroute shipments containing extremely hazardous materials along safer paths.

The bill contains other common-sense provisions. It would require that governors, mayors and emergency responders be notified when hazardous materials are shipped through high-threat corridors. And it would give states and local governments standing to sue companies that put lives in danger by violating the law.

President Bush was re-elected on a pledge to do everything he could to keep the nation safe, but again and again, his administration has put corporate interests ahead of national security. Notably, the president has failed to push for a strong law to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks on chemical plants, which the chemical industry has strongly opposed. And when CSX sued Washington to block its ban on hazardous materials, the administration joined in on the railroad's behalf, arguing that the city did not have the authority to block the shipments.

The Bush administration indicated last week that it now supports passage of strong chemical plant safety legislation. That will be a welcome shift in policy, if the administration sticks to its word. But if it favors chemical plant safety rules, it should also back Mr. Biden's bill. There is little point in reducing the risk at chemical plants if the same chemicals become easy targets once they are put in rail tanks and shipped through populated areas.

An Insecure Nation: Editorials in this series remain online at nytimes.com/insecurenation.

Monday, June 20, 2005

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