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Chicago warned of cargo hazards

(The following article by Gary Washburn was posted on the Chicago Tribune website on June 28.)

CHICAGO -- An environmental activist told aldermen Monday that a terrorist act on a single rail car carrying chlorine near downtown Chicago could wreck havoc on the city, creating a toxic cloud from which thousands of people could not hide or flee fast enough to escape harm.

Tank cars are not built to withstand an explosive charge, and "we are offering targets to terrorists that are easily accessible," said Fred Millar, who noted that graffiti by vandals illustrates how cars can be reached by people unauthorized to be near them.

Millar, a consultant to Friends of the Earth, urged passage of a measure co-sponsored by Ald. Ed Smith (28th) and Ald. James Balcer (11th) that would force rail cars and trucks carrying dangerous chemicals to bypass a "municipal exclusion zone" stretching 2.2 miles from the Loop.

Failure to reroute would be tantamount to "prepositioning weapons of mass destruction," Millar said.

But Michael Payette of the Union Pacific Railroad, contended at a joint meeting of the City Council's Health and Transportation Committees that reroutes could produce greater dangers because of the increased risk of accidents as trains operate longer distances and on routes not designed to handle the traffic.

"Optimal routes are better in terms of safety, security and efficiency," Payette said.

Millar was a consultant to the Washington, D.C., City Council, which has passed a ban on shipments similar to the one proposed for Chicago. The prohibition is being challenged in federal court and is not enforced.

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security oppose the Washington ban as does the Department of Transportation, which asserted in a brief filed as part of the case that risk "is minimized by permitting railroads to carry such cargo on routes where time in transit will be minimized." Local bans "shift the risk to others" and "clog the transportation system," the department said.

Smith held the proposal in committee for investigation.

"My concern is that we do everything we possibly can do to make sure we have executed our responsibility," Smith said. If the industry can demonstrate it has taken measures "to protect us and that we are not in imminent danger and that they can secure those cars, then we probably would not go further," he said. If not, Smith said he would push for a vote on the measure.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

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