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Expert: Reroute dangerous cargo

(The following article by Fran Spielman was posted on the Chicago Sun-Times website on June 28.)

CHICAGO -- Hazardous material shipments so vulnerable to terrorists they're the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction must be rerouted around Chicago to avoid placing tens of thousands of lives at risk, a safety expert warned aldermen Monday.

All a terrorist would have to do is "blow a hole through a single rail car filled with liquified chlorine" and it would trigger a release of noxious gas 41.5 miles long capable of killing 100,000 people in a crowded area within 30 minutes, said Fred Millar, a harzardous material expert who consulted with Washington, D.C., on a ban now being challenged in federal court by the railroad industry.

Health Committee chairman Ed Smith (28th) wants to follow Washington's lead and create a "municipal exclusion zone" within 2.2 miles of the Loop where the four most dangerous forms of haz-mat shipments would effectively be prohibited by rail or truck. Similar ordinances are pending in Baltimore, Boston and Cleveland.

The rail industry alone transports about 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials across the country each year.

"If we don't reroute these cargoes, we are prepositioning weapons of mass destruction in our high-threat, target cities. It's a little bit like taking huge containers of jet fuel ... up to the top floors of the ... Sears Tower," Millar told a joint meeting of the Health and Transportation committees.

"We are offering targets to terrorists which are very easily accessible," added Millar, noting how rail cars that move through the nation's capital are covered with graffiti. "The rail system is way too far-flung for anybody to protect it with fences. It's about as easy as anything you can imagine to kill lots of Americans and damage the U.S. economy in a terrible way."

As they have in Washington, officials from the rail and chemical industries countered that a ban on hazardous material shipments would make transport even more dangerous by extending the time and distance traveled over roads and rail lines that are not as well-maintained as they are in major cities.

'The risk increases'

"Any time you force rerouting and longer distances -- more dead time, essentially when a car is sitting someplace, rather than moving -- the risk increases," said Mark A. Biel, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois.

Michael W. Payette, Union Pacific Railroad's assistant vice president of government affairs for the central region, argued that a haz-mat ban would be an economic disaster for a city that has a lot more at stake than the nation's capital.

Every day, 1,200 trains pass through Chicago carrying 75 percent of the nation's freight. Chicago is the only city where all six Class One railroads converge and exchange freight. Chicago is also the No. 1 intermodal port in the Western Hemisphere and the No. 3 in the world. Intermodal means the ability to move freight from train to truck and back again. An intermodal port is the place where freight is transferred between truck and rail.

"We can't have it both ways," Payette said. "We can't have the federal government saying that railroads must carry these chemicals and local governments saying, 'But you can't carry it here.' It will only serve, like it has in Washington, to create a set of conflicting laws that will force the railroads and the city into court."

The hearing adjourned without any action on the proposed anti-terrorism ordinance.

Smith said he was open to the idea of permanently shelving the ban. But that will happen only if railroads that lack credibility with aldermen because of their notorious failure to maintain the right-of-way convince the City Council that they have other ways to deal with the threat.

"People have got to be protected. I don't care how many jobs are out there. In the final analysis, it's life that we want to save," Smith said.

"If they can [show] that we are not in imminent danger and that they can secure those cars where they can be watched -- not only electronically, but with warm bodies -- then we would probably not go further. But, if we're not protected, then we're gonna push for a vote."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

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