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Congress approves rail cargo measure

(The following story by Carol D. Leonnig appeared on the Washington Post website on July 29.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Freight trains carrying hazardous chemicals could be required to avoid downtown Washington and other densely populated areas in favor of more rural routes, under a provision of a Homeland Security bill that Congress passed Friday night that now goes to the White House.

The provision requires federal authorities to weigh risks and use the safest and most secure options available before approving a route. Advocates of the measure said it would press railroad companies to transport hazardous materials such as chlorine and ammonia over rural routes instead of urban ones, particularly in the nation's capital.

CSX Transportation Inc., based in Jacksonville, Fla., owns and operates the lines in the District and Maryland. In 2004, the company stopped carrying its most hazardous materials on the line that passes the Mall and the Capitol but still carries such cargo on a Cumberland-to-Baltimore line that travels through Northeast Washington near Union Station and Catholic University.

CSX referred questions yesterday to the Association of American Railroads, which declined to comment.

The issue has been a controversy for more than two years in the District, which passed a law banning the shipment of hazardous cargo on its rails in 2005. CSX Transportation and the Bush administration fought the ban in federal court. A ruling from a federal judge on the ban's legality is pending.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who first proposed the cargo measure, said he is pleased that Congress took action to address a safety hazard for millions of people.

"These shipments of toxic chemicals are literally 'Hell on Wheels' rolling through our communities," Markey said in a statement.

Maryland officials and environmental groups cheered the cargo provision as a historic moment in rail safety and a step toward preventing an urban catastrophe. Rail cars have been an increasing focus of concern for local and federal security officials since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

If a 90-ton rail car loaded with chlorine were intentionally ruptured or detonated, it could kill or injure 100 people per second and be fatal to anyone within five miles. Within the first 30 minutes of such an event in a densely populated city such as Washington, 100,000 people could be killed, experts estimate.

The new legislation does not spell out which routes would be deemed safe. Instead, the U.S. Department of Transportation would have to decide, with cities, counties and rail carriers, which communities would become hosts for hazardous materials. Once the safest routes are chosen, rerouting could begin by April 2009.

Prince George's and Charles counties expressed concern this spring about a study that suggested using CSX rail lines in those counties as alternate routes for hazardous materials. Local supporters of the legislation say it's likely that CSX would have to use a Norfolk Southern line in rural Virginia to bypass the District.

A spokesman said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) wants more information.

"We support the legislation to reroute hazardous materials away from population centers, and we're going to have to work with the delegation to make sure we do it in such a way that minimizes the impact on Maryland," said Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's spokesman. "But overall, this is positive legislation that's long overdue."

President Bush has said he plans to sign the bill into law, probably next month. If he does, the Transportation Department would have to develop a rule within nine months requiring each rail carrier of hazardous cargo to conduct annual analyses to identify the safest and most secure alternative routes.

The legislation stresses that rail carriers of hazardous materials must avoid "high-consequence targets." Those are defined in the bill as places where a rail car explosion could cause catastrophic loss of life, significant damage to national security or defense capabilities, or national economic harm.

The District would rate high in each category because of its population and federal role, area advocates of the legislation say.

Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Boston have also been considering plans to reroute or ban hazardous materials traveling through their cities.

Rick Hind of Greenpeace said the legislation "finally empowers cities to demand that railroads reroute these hazardous materials so there are not these 90-ton bull's-eyes running down the tracks through our communities."

(Staff writers Mariana Minaya and John Wagner contributed to this report.)

Monday, July 30, 2007

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