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Rail cargo safety fight heats up

The Transportation Department has proposed regulations that require railroads to assess routes for shipping dangerous chemicals.

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Critics note that DHS came up with its regulations after the local government in Washington, D.C., passed a requirement that all such shipments be rerouted around the capital. As many as 10 other major cities considered similar legislation. But the railroads and the Bush administration are opposed to any law that would mandate rerouting, and they've sued to overturn Washington's measure. The dispute is currently in the courts.

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In the meantime, the rail freight company CSX says it is voluntarily rerouting TIH chemicals at least away from the rail line that passes right next to the National Mall and the Capitol building. But such shipments continue to travel through other parts of Washington and major cities like Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.

The railroads say that it would be logistically difficult and expensive for them to reroute shipments around major cities. They also say that despite the security benefits, rerouting could create safety hazards.

"These rules were carefully constructed to balance safety and security," says Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. "If you don't also consider safety, you could end up sending some of these materials on routes that are totally inappropriate: Perhaps they have steep grades or [travel] a light-density line that doesn't have the same quality track."

Environmentalists contend that rerouting is easier than the railroads portray, noting that rail lines routinely swap cargo and share lines. They also argue that the extra cost and effort are worth it, considering the risks posed by rail cars carrying TIH.

One idea: don't transport them at all

The railroads, for their part, are extremely cognizant of the risk posed by the chemicals. In fact, Mr. White says, many would choose not to transport them at all, but they are mandated to by law.

Earlier this year, in a move that stunned the chemical industry, the railroads came out in favor a law long championed by the environmental community. It would require chemical companies and industry to look for safer alternatives to ingredients like chlorine gas and anhydrous ammonia whenever possible.

"The only way you can have total safety and security on these things is by eliminating them altogether," White says. "We're the ones at risk here when we're moving this stuff."

The American Chemistry Council is quick to note that its own members developed the idea of safer alternatives – known as "inherently safer technologies" (IST) – long before 9/11. But they are opposed to any kind of a mandate: They say it should be left to individual companies – in part, because many companies are already in the process of assessing their operations to look for safer alternatives.

"There's a lack of understanding of the complexity of the issue," says Scott Jensen, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, in Arlington, Va. "There isn't one simple approach that will make us all more safe and secure."