Cities move to defend against railroad attacks

At least five may ban tanker cars with hazardous chemicals. Industry and federal officials disapprove.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Boston officials envision keeping rail cars carrying hazardous chemicals at least 10 miles away unless the city is their destination.

A plan in Chicago would prohibit such tanker cars in its downtown Loop. In Cleveland, city officials are considering banning them near Lake Erie, water treatment plants, and crowded neighborhoods.

Transport of these chemicals presents one of the knottiest public policy problems in the effort to protect the nation's cities from terrorist attack. Federal law requires railroads to carry such chemicals, which are used in manufacturing, water-purification systems, and wastewater-treatment plants. But with no federal regulations for securing the transport of these chemicals, The District of Columbia has enacted rules of its own and at least five other cities are considering them. These moves have drawn a sharp rebuke from industry and federal officials, who say such piecemeal efforts are misguided. Since 9/11, they point out, railroads have fortified rail yards and worked with the chemical industry to conceal where and when these tanker cars pass near or through cities.

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The threat looms large. Government studies suggest that the explosion of one tanker car carrying, say, chlorine would cause up to 100,000 deaths in a densely populated area.

So Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Chicago have proposed ordinances requiring that such deadly chemicals be rerouted around them unless they're destined for the cities themselves. The fact that the rail industry, with federal support, has sued the District of Columbia over its law has not deterred them.

"The federal government says, 'We preempt the field,' but their preemption is abdication because they're not doing anything. They're letting the railroads determine the routes," says Stuart Greenberg of the Cuyahoga County Emergency Planning Committee in Cleveland. "Either we need to allow local jurisdictions to exercise their obligation to protect the public, or we need a comprehensive federal routing system designed by a neutral party."

Critics' main concern is that it's too easy to gain access to the tanker cars. A few miles from midtown Manhattan, for example, a chain-link fence topped with razor-sharp wire surrounds a rail yard in Jersey City, N.J. "No Trespassing" signs abound. But it's easy to step through some weeds and onto the tracks that lead directly into the fenced-in rail yard. No one stopped a reporter when she approached those tracks - or tracks in two other areas where tanker cars sometimes travel.

Rail officials contend that's not a fair representation of how easy it would be to target dangerous cars. First, they represent a small percentage of the nation's rail cargo, they say. Of 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials transported each year, only about 100,000 contain the most dangerous toxic inhalants like chlorine and anhydrous ammonia. Second, the industry has increased the safeguards on information about where and when such shipments travel. Third, and most important, rerouting toxic chemicals would cause them to travel longer routes on less well maintained rural tracks, increasing the risk of accidents.

"You're compromising safety in the name of security, which is not a good idea or public policy," says Peggy Wilhide, of the Association of American Railroads in Washington, D.C.

Critics counter that an accident or an attack in a less populated area would create far less damage, mitigating the trade-off. They also say the federal government is intentionally downplaying the risks.

"In their mind, it's better for the public to be at very high risk and in blissful ignorance than to do something about it," says Fred Millar, a consultant to the Washington, D.C., city council.

In response, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation last Friday issued "recommended security action items" for the rail transport of "toxic inhalation hazard materials." It calls for putting one person in charge of these shipments; restricting access to information about them; and ensuring regular communications with federal, state, and local emergency responders. But the memo's second sentence reads: "All measures are voluntary." That prompted an angry reaction from some on Capitol Hill.

These "are the latest sign of how this administration would sooner jeopardize homeland security than ruffle the feathers of a big corporation," says Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts.

Federal transportation and homeland security officials defend the guidelines as just a first step that can be implemented right away. They also say the guidelines don't preclude future regulations. "Our goal is to balance safety and security, rerouting doesn't mitigate the risk, it simply moves it to another location," says Darrin Kayser, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration.

Rail officials contend this is one of the most difficult and expensive security problem it faces. Indeed, Ms. Wilhide says the railroads would rather not carry such dangerous cargo at all. Recently, the AAR came out in favor of industry switching to less dangerous chemicals where possible, a move that puts it at odds with its customer, the chemical industry.

"If we had our choice we wouldn't move it becuase it constitutes less than 1/10th of our profit and 99 percent of our risk," says Wilhide. "We'd at least like a clear set of guidelines."

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