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Tighter rule on hazardous rail cargo is ready

(The following article by Matthew L. Wald was posted on the New York Times website on December 14.)

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to make rail shipments of chlorine and other hazardous chemicals less vulnerable to attack, the Homeland Security Department intends to announce a proposed rule on Friday to require railroads to track continuously tanker cars for “toxic inhalation hazards” and bar them from leaving the cars unattended or parked for long periods.

The proposal would also clarify how government workers inspect tank cars and railyards for compliance, establish rules on the chain of custody and handoff of dangerous cargoes and set communications requirements.

Each year, the railroads carry 1.7 million shipments of hazardous materials, of which 100,000 are toxic chemicals prone to becoming airborne in an accident. About 80 percent of the shipments that can become poison gases are chlorine, for purifying water and other applications, or anhydrous ammonia, for fertilizer.

An official of the Homeland Security Department provided details of the plan on the condition that he not be identified further, because it has not been published. The plan is to be open for public comment for 60 days.

Among other changes, each railroad would have to have a round-the-clock security coordinator to receive tips on threats to cargoes and immediately inform the government of details like the location of cargo.

Many high-hazard cargoes move through densely populated areas, and some cities would like to ban them. The District of Columbia adopted an ordinance in February 2005 that requires permits for “ultra-hazardous materials,” including explosives, flammable liquids like liquefied petroleum gas, toxic solids and toxic gases, from an area extending 2.2 miles from the Capitol.

CSX, which operates a stretch of tracks between the Federal buildings just south of the Mall, challenged the ordinance in court as unduly burdensome to interstate commerce. Enforcement has been blocked while the case works its way through the federal courts.

Fred Millar, a consultant to the City Council who drafted the ordinance, said eight cities were weighing similar rules: Albany, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

The new rule would not address routes. Such rules would be sensible, Mr. Millar said, but railroads did not like them because they might be forced to give business to one another.

Officials say that the Transportation Department is considering rules on routes that could be published soon.

The domestic security proposal is that carriers would have to establish security zones around affected rail cars parked, loaded or unloaded in urban areas.

More than five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, few federal rules specifically try to prevent terrorists from attacking materials on the rails. Train crews carry manifests showing what they carry and where, and there are coded placards on tank cars that identify the contents to emergency responders and anybody else with a readily available emergency response handbook.

Friday, December 15, 2006

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