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Why railroad safety debate keeps rolling

A deadly chlorine leak has added momentum to local efforts to curb chemical hazards.

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"The fact is that most Americans are kept in ignorance about ... these things that are routinely routed though their cities," says Fred Millar, an expert on the transport of hazardous and toxic materials and a member of the local emergency planning committee in Washington.

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Mr. Millar is an advocate of the proposal requiring hazardous shipments to be routed around the capital. The railroads oppose it, contending that mandatory rerouting would actually increase the risks of exposure by lengthening the distance that rail tank cars have to travel. In some cases, according to experts, to successfully reroute a rail car around Washington, a train might have to begin an alternative route as far away as Dallas.

The railroads also insist that since 9/11, security has been their top priority, and they are confident their shipments are properly protected. "We do a tremendous amount of work with the federal defense, intelligence, and security agencies and have a tremendous understanding and ability to deal with risks and threats that are out there," says Bob Sullivan, a CSX spokesman.

After the Madrid train bombings last March, the railroads and chemical industry reportedly began voluntarily rerouting hazardous materials around Washington. Officials will not comment, but several members of Congress who met with rail officials confirmed the setup. Still, it does not mollify some D.C. officials. "It is secret, and it is voluntary on the part of the railroad, so therefore it's temporary and unverifiable," says Millar.

The Department of Homeland Security also won't comment directly on the rerouting question, but it is reportedly hoping to spend more than $9 million to increase the security of rail tracks around Washington so such shipments can resume. "We are taking appropriate and effective risk mitigation steps, at the same time ensuring the free flow of commerce," says DHS spokesman Mark Hatfield.

That doesn't satisfy several Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts. He and others have called on the Department of Homeland Security to increase rail security around the country.

Yet some community leaders are concerned that spending money to try to "secure" miles of rail track will in itself be counterproductive. "It sends the wrong message that we're going to try to fortify our rail lines well enough to avoid even the slightest vulnerabilities," says Tacoma Park's Ms. Austin-Lane. "I just think it's unrealistic and not feasible."

Representatives of the nation's first responders would like to see the federal government step up funding for equipment and training to deal with hazardous materials - regardless of whether a crisis is the result of sabotage or an accident.

"Hopefully, never again will anybody fly a commercial airliner into a high-rise building, but this is the kind of incident that everybody is vulnerable to," says Eric Lamar, assistant to the president of the International Association of Firefighters in Washington. "These tend to be low-probability, high-impact incidents that require a very sophisticated emergency response."