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Opinion: Hell on wheels

(The following editorial by Sally Quinn was posted on the Washington Post website on March 12.)

WASHINGTON -- What if I told you that:

• On average, six rail cars a week carrying 90 tons of chlorine, one of the most lethal gases in the world, pass within 20 blocks of the U.S. Capitol?

• If terrorists attacked the rail cars, escaping gas could kill or injure tens of thousands -- about 100 people a second?

• Depending on the wind, a chlorine spill would be lethal to people within two to five miles and would endanger people within 14 miles?

• The chlorine passing through Washington is not for use here?

• The rail cars basically are unprotected and are emblazoned with placards announcing that they carry hazardous cargo -- including the specific code for chlorine?

It doesn't have to be this way. CSX Transportation (CSXT) could reroute these cars. So why doesn't it?

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) have asked that very question.

Biden and Markey have introduced bills requiring the railroads to reroute the most hazardous materials away from vulnerable cities. A bill that Patterson authored about a year ago (and that was signed by Mayor Williams) demands that rail companies reroute hazardous materials away from Washington.

CSXT's response to Patterson's bill was to sue the District, with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation filing statements in its support. Patterson says the case might go to trial this fall. Meanwhile, rail cars carrying chlorine gas roll through Washington.

Jay Boris of the Naval Research Laboratory said his worst-case scenario would have been an accident along the rail line that runs four blocks from the Capitol. If a big event were taking place on the Mall when such an accident occurred, he said, 100,000 out of 500,000 people might be killed. If an attack were to happen at rush hour, he estimated, the death toll could be 17,000.

But the railroad says that won't happen because it has discontinued shipping chlorine on that route.

As recently as last summer, however, cars marked as carrying chlorine were spotted on that line. The railroad says the cars were empty, but "empty" apparently can mean they still carry as much as a 1,000-pound load, which is why they must be marked as hazardous. Even that small volume of chlorine could kill hundreds.

Richard A. Falkenrath, former deputy homeland security adviser to the White House, has testified before the Senate that "of all the various remaining civilian vulnerabilities in America today, one stands alone as uniquely deadly, pervasive and susceptible to terrorist attack: toxic-inhalation-hazard industrial chemicals." In response to the seriousness of that threat, eight weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, the District's Blue Plains sewage treatment plant stopped using chlorine and began using a substitute chemical. For the railroads, though, it is business as usual.

Rail cars are vulnerable to attack. A rifle shot is capable of penetrating a tanker. Even an open valve would be catastrophic, and the presence of graffiti on rail cars and trestles testifies to a lack of security.

Bob Sullivan, spokesman for CSXT, says that the law requires railroads to carry hazardous materials. "Which law to obey?" he asks. "The laws saying we have to carry the stuff, or the laws saying we can't carry certain things through these towns?" His company is taking the District to court, he says, out of a need for "clarity."

So why then did CSXT discontinue shipping chlorine on the route that passes in front of the Capitol? "We work with the federal government on security issues, and we act accordingly," Sullivan says.

That means that CSXT could discontinue shipping chlorine along its other D.C. line as well. Alternative routes are available, but a railroad official has testified that rerouting is expensive.

Peggy Wilhide, vice president for communications for the Association of American Railroads, says that rerouting hazardous cargo actually lessens safety because the added travel time increases the chances of a leak or an accident. The railroads also do not want to set a precedent for the government to dictate how they do business.

Earlier this month Darrin Kayser, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration at the Department of Homeland Security, mistakenly said that CSXT had rerouted all chlorine shipments that had gone through Washington. When told that only the route closest to the Capitol had been discontinued, he said, "Our goal is to balance the needs of security with commerce. We need to look at all of the threats through that lens."

Rick Hind of Greenpeace sees it differently. "No risk that's preventable is acceptable," he says. "Rerouting is the first step; chemical substitution is the second."

If the railroads won't reroute hazardous shipments voluntarily, then what's the answer? It's simple: President Bush could pick up the phone and demand that they do so.

"It's a no-brainer," says Boris.

"It's a no-brainer," echoes Patterson.

So why isn't the president making that call?

Monday, March 13, 2006

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