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Rail plan reroutes toxins

(The following article by Bartholomew Sullivan was posted on the Memphis Commercial Appeal website on March 14.)

WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan House Homeland Security Committee voted Tuesday to require railroads to study alternative routes for transporting highly toxic chemicals around high-threat urban areas like Memphis.

If it becomes law, the measure would supersede an ordinance scheduled to come before the Memphis City Council next week requiring permits for certain hazardous shipments through the city.

City Council member Carol Chumney, who has received criticism from the rail industry for sponsoring the city ordinance, commended Congress for moving ahead on the issue.

“As I have consistently said, I hope we can find a solution that will protect our citizens and not harm industry,” Chumney said in a statement Tuesday.

The House Homeland Security Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., whose district includes Tunica, passed the so-called Markey amendment calling for rail bypasses by voice vote.

It later voted 30-0 to pass a sweeping set of railroad security measures to the full House.

The amendment by U.S. Rep. Ed Markey would require the rail industry to study alternative routing of cars containing chemicals such as chlorine, which the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory has said could kill 100,000 people in half an hour if breached within a major urban area.

In introducing the measure Tuesday, Markey referred to a propane tank car derailment and explosion in upstate New York on Monday and the use of chlorine gas bombs in Iraq.

Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, said the industry group is dedicated to safety but opposes rerouting because it simply transfers risks from one place to another.

In the long term, White said, “we need to move toward safer chemicals.”

Last July, The Commercial Appeal identified train cars carrying chlorine, 2-Dimethylaminoethyl acrylate, acetone cyanohydrin, nickel carbonyl, and several other toxic inhalation hazard cargoes over a two-day period in or near residential areas of Memphis.

All are listed as potentially lethal if inhaled.

Chumney’s ordinance, which comes before the council for a second reading next Tuesday, would require permits for certain chemicals, restricting when they could enter the city.

In response to the ordinance she introduced last month, Chumney received letters from Canadian National and Union Pacific asking her to reconsider, and noting changes in federal regulations already under way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

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