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Opinion: An Insecure Nation -- Trouble on the Tracks

(The following editorial was posted on the New York Times website on October 16.)

NEW YORK -- Since Sept. 11, 2001, downtown Washington has come to look like a city under lockdown. But federal officials are being reckless about one of the greatest threats - deadly chemicals that pass through the city by rail, which could cause mass deaths if terrorists attacked. The Bush administration has fought attempts to keep these deadly chemicals out of Washington. Now, the Department of Homeland Security is proposing a weak alternative that would let the shipments continue but put lights, cameras and chemical detectors along the route. This plan - which critics have dubbed "lights, camera, inaction" - puts the railroad and chemical industries' convenience and bottom lines ahead of the safety of everyone who lives or works in the city.

One of the deadliest terrorist attacks experts can think of would involve a 90-ton rail tanker filled with chlorine in a densely populated area. In less than an hour, as many as 100,000 people could be killed or injured. In Washington, a truck bomb set off under the bridge at Second Street and E Street SW, just as a chlorine tanker passed, would endanger everyone in Congress and the Supreme Court, and many other residents and workers.

The District of Columbia passed a law to keep out shipments of deadly chemicals, which are generally headed elsewhere. But railroads oppose the ban, which would raise shipping costs by modestly lengthening the route chemicals travel. CSX, the main railroad involved, persuaded a federal court to block the law from taking effect.

The Department of Homeland Security should develop a comprehensive national plan to keep deadly chemical shipments, to the extent possible, out of places that are likely targets. Instead, it proposes to protect a 7.5-mile stretch of rail line running through Washington with a "virtual security corridor." At a cost of nearly $10 million, it would include video surveillance, high-intensity lights and detectors to report a toxic release. This isn't good enough. A well-orchestrated attack on a rail tanker would likely be over before officials could react to cameras or detectors.

The Bush administration talks tough about domestic security, but when reasonable safety measures clash with the interests of big industries, it goes soft. An attack on a rail tanker carrying chemicals is a danger that people are warning of now. The Homeland Security Department should listen.

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

Monday, October 17, 2005

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