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U.S. starts regulating freight rail security

(The following story by Raju Chebium appeared on the Courier Post website on July 1.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A federal rule, which the Bush administration will begin enforcing today, seeks to minimize the chances of terrorists attacking freight trains carrying hazardous chemicals that can be fatal if inhaled.

It requires the freight rail industry to collect data and analyze the risks associated with carrying hazardous materials. The idea is to use the information to figure out the safest route to carry such substances when traveling through crowded regions.

The broader importance of the rule is that it marks the first time since 9/11 that the federal government is getting involved in freight rail security. And it potentially thwarts state and local authorities from passing laws to block chemical-carrying trains from entering their borders.

"You don't want to have a patchwork of laws or regulations that you almost couldn't comply with," said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of America Railroads. "If every community wants to ban it, (chemical-carrying trains) simply couldn't move. There's no way we can avoid every populated area in moving these things."

Congress, the Bush administration and the state of New Jersey agree that the freight rail industry is best equipped to figure out the safest methods and routes to transport these materials.

But critics such as Fred Millar of the Friends of the Earth environmental group argued government shouldn't allow railroads to decide which routes are most secure. Federal officials should instead force railroads to go around crowded areas or find other routes to move dangerous chemicals, he said.

He also expressed disappointment in New Jersey's support for the rule, arguing that a populous industrialized state should be more worried about catastrophic loss of life from a chemical leak caused by a terrorist attack or an industrial accident.

"One chlorine tank car can put a lethal cloud 15 miles long over your city," Millar said. "New Jersey is a national leader in chemical plant security, but they haven't executed the same level of leadership in . . . freight rail security."

New Jersey officials countered they've been quietly working behind the scenes on the issue.

Roger Shatzkin, spokesman for the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said federal and state officials have conducted joint inspections of freight-rail tracks, and New Jersey has spent $2 million from federal homeland security grants to improve fencing and surveillance.

State officials and CSX Corp., the largest freight railroad operating in the Garden State, also have an agreement that allows New Jersey to tap into the CSX computer system to track rail cars, Shatzkin said.

White said chlorine and anhydrous ammonia account for 80 percent of the "toxic-by-inhalation" cargo railroads carry nationwide each year.

Dangerous cargo is transported in 100,000 cars, a fraction of the 33 million carloads of materials the rail industry carries yearly, he said.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

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