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Terrorism on track?

(The following article by Benjamin Grove was posted on the Las Vegas Sun website on October 10.)

WASHINGTON -- Las Vegas and a handful of other "target cities" are sitting on a terrorist threat -- hazardous material shipments -- that could be a far more immediate risk than nuclear waste transports, a leading environmental consultant says.

Fred Millar said Las Vegas, as an entertainment capital, should pursue a "hazmat" transport ban similar to one in Washington, D.C., which is in the middle of a ground-breaking legal fight to prohibit the shipping of certain materials within 2.2 miles of the U.S. Capitol.

"The point is to find out how you reduce the terrorist risk," said Millar, who consults for the District of Columbia on the issue. "Getting these materials out of town is a no-brainer."

Millar was in Las Vegas last week meeting with local officials to urge them to join the fight. Four other cities -- Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland and Chicago -- have introduced ordinances banning some hazardous waste shipments, but the District of Columbia is the first to pass one.

In Las Vegas, Union Pacific's rail line runs parallel to the Strip, about a half mile west, and the concern about rail cars with hazardous waste isn't new.

On Dec. 31, 2003, a Federal Railroad Administration inspector came to Nevada because of what was then a "credible terrorist threat" and found six unattended tank cars intended for chlorine gas 13 miles southwest of McCarran International Airport and four unattended tank cars at Union Pacific's Henderson rail yard north of Interstate 215 and west of Stephanie Street.

Las Vegas officials have fought to keep nuclear waste out of the valley -- the city has an ordinance and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has pledged to stand in front of any truck carrying waste -- but Millar said hazardous material is as much a threat.

"My position to them is: You have city officials saying they are going to stop nuclear waste, but you won't stop chlorine?" said Millar, who was paid by the Clark County Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Advisory Committee to brief its government, university and citizen members.

Millar advised them to act now as a show of political mettle and to build credibility for potential future fights over nuclear waste shipments.

He is pushing the city to pass an ordinance modeled on the ordinances in the other cities that ban from certain urban areas four classes of hazardous shipments: toxic gases; toxic liquids and solids; and the highest classes of both explosives and flammables.

That would include chlorine, nearly all of which is shipped by rail because it is safer than highways. Millar said the explosion of one chlorine tanker could kill thousands and create a deadly cloud that would stretch for miles.

Millar told city officials that Las Vegas was not "safe enough."

Goodman said he wasn't shrinking from any fight. He said he was interested in expanding the city ordinance that bars high-level nuclear waste from traveling through the city to include other forms of highly hazardous material.

The question is if such a law would be enforceable or even legal.

Las Vegas City Manager Doug Selby said an ordinance like the one Millar was pitching might be similar to one torpedoed about 20 years ago. He said he wants to investigate that and then bring the matter to the City Council.

In 1985 or 1986, the Council adopted an ordinance that required special city permits be obtained by those transporting hazardous materials through the city, said Val Steed, a chief deputy city attorney.

That ordinance was challenged in federal court by Union Pacific, and in 1989 a federal judge issued an injunction in the railroad company's favor, Steed said.

Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said that while the commission is always looking for strategies to keep the public safe, local officials likely would have to prove there were viable alternative routes in order for any new ordinance to hold up in court.
Rail industry officials have argued that nearly two centuries ago the nation set out to construct railroads that linked cities -- and now critics are impossibly suggesting they go around them.

Rail officials say that re-routing shipments would create massive new costs and logistical problems. They also argue that it would increase safety risks by increasing handling and lengthening transportation times and distances.

Rail officials also are quick to note that local ordinances banning local shipments are not constitutional. The Constitution's commerce clause gives the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce and local shipping restrictions are prohibited, rail officials argue.

The nation relies on its current safe, efficient shipments of hazmats like chlorine, Association of American Railroads spokesman Tom White said. Hazardous material shipping bans in the nation's most populous cities would effectively grind the nation to a halt, White said.

"The net result would be to make it impossible to ship these products," White said.
Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said there has not been any recent study of the potential cost and logistical challenges that would be involved in either shipping material on alternate Western routes to avoid Las Vegas, or in constructing a bypass track around the city. Those costs likely would be paid by local or state governments, he said.

Millar acknowledges that it would not be easy to ship certain materials around Las Vegas. Still, rail companies routinely re-route certain materials for various reasons, he said.

Millar said there are at least three alternate rail routes and four major highway routes that would keep hazardous materials out of Las Vegas. That would route them near other cities, but not cities with such a high value to terrorists, he said.

"This is hardly a radical idea," he said.

Monday, October 10, 2005

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