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Opinion: Terrorists, chemicals and trains

(The following editorial appeared on the New York Times website on June 4.)

NEW YORK — A bill is moving forward in Congress that would take important and much-needed steps to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. But it may not address one of the most glaring vulnerabilities: chemicals traveling by rail. The House has voted to include restrictions on rail transport of deadly chemicals, but the Senate has not.

If Congress is serious about protecting against terrorism, it will include the House provision in the final bill.

If terrorists attacked a chlorine tank as it traveled through downtown Washington, or another city, it could produce a toxic chemical cloud that would put the lives of hundreds of thousands of people at risk. Terrorism experts agree that rail cars filled with chemicals are an easy target. And the recent attacks on trains in Europe, and the use of chemicals in attacks in Iraq, should put America on notice about the seriousness of the threat.

The only real way to avoid that grim possibility — and the frightening likelihood of mass casualties that could come with it — is to require railroads to route dangerous chemicals away from densely populated areas. Representative Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, introduced a good bill that includes reasonable provisions for rerouting hazardous chemicals.

The requirements would not be onerous or expensive. Only a small percentage of shipments would be affected — the ones with the most dangerous chemicals, like chlorine and propane. There are plenty of rail lines that bypass populated areas, and it is not difficult to reroute individual cars. It is an indication of the bill’s moderate, common-sense approach that it passed the House with broad bipartisan support.

Unfortunately, the Senate failed to pass its own version of the Markey bill, which was sponsored by Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware. A main reason the Biden provision failed was lobbying by the chemical industry, an enormous contributor to political campaigns. The industry seems to believe that even after Sept. 11 and the recent rail and subway attacks in Europe, it should not be subjected to meaningful new government safety regulations.

Especially when deadly chemicals are involved, rail security is too important to leave to the good will of the businesses involved.

When Senate and House conferees meet to hammer out a final version of the broader homeland security bill, they will have to choose between looking out for the convenience and bottom line of industry and safeguarding the lives of Americans. It should not be a hard choice.

Monday, June 4, 2007

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