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Officials tighten security for railroad shipments

(The following article by Del Quentin Wilber was posted on the Washington Post website on December 16.)

WASHINGTON -- Federal officials unveiled a plan Friday to tighten security for railroad shipments of hazardous materials, saying the rules would reduce the risk of terrorists using dangerous chemicals to kill thousands of people.

The proposals -- which drew criticism from Democrats, who said they did not go far enough -- would require freight and passenger systems to keep closer tabs on rail cars containing dangerous chemicals. A separate set of rules proposed by the Transportation Department would compel rail operators to find safer and more secure routes for such shipments, authorities said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the rules, which will be open to public comment for 60 days, would "reduce the risk that chemicals can be turned into deadly weapons when they are in transit."

Authorities are concerned that terrorists might target rail cars in the hopes of releasing a plume of hazardous chemicals in a populated region. The proposals would cost the rail industry about $162 million over 10 years, officials said.

Chertoff said many of the proposed rules have already been adopted by the rail industry on a voluntary basis.

Democratic members of Congress said the rules did not adequately address overall rail security.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who has introduced rail security legislation in the past, said the plans would not do enough to secure rail stations, bridges and tunnels, which are also vulnerable to attack.

He said the government should also have the authority to force companies to reroute hazardous materials around populated areas when terror alert levels are raised.

"This plan is just window dressing," he said. "It doesn't have any substance."

Chertoff said banning chemical shipments from urban areas would be difficult because the rail system weaves in and out of those areas. Many of the chemicals -- such as chlorine used to purify water -- are destined for use in metropolitan areas, he said.

"If you are going to deliver to a city, you have got to get it into the city," Chertoff said.

Chertoff said the rules are aimed at protecting rail cars when they are most vulnerable: when they are not moving and are waiting to be transferred to other companies. Under the proposal, authorities would require a "secure handoff" from one company to another, preventing a car from "sitting there unattended," Chertoff said.

When cars are stationary for long periods of time, companies would be required to watch them or park them in secure areas, he added.

Transportation Security Administration officials would have the authority to conduct inspections of rail operations and levy fines if they found security breaches. The companies would also be required to provide authorities with the exact locations of hazardous shipments within minutes of a request, Chertoff said.

Monday, December 18, 2006

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