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Rule OK’s chemical tankers through cities

The railroad regulation is one of the latest ‘midnight rule changes’ by the outgoing administration.

By Staff writer / December 15, 2008

Safe transport? State and local officials want a say in the routing of railroad chemical tank cars, like these in Boston. The Bush administration wants to let railroads do that themselves.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File


New York

The Bush administration has finalized a controversial regulation that will allow railroads to continue to ship dangerous chemicals through major cities.

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That has infuriated some city officials, security experts, and environmentalists because it preempts all local efforts to control if, when, and how those railroad tank cars move through their communities.

Federal security officials have long considered railroad tankers full of such chemicals as chlorine or anhydrous ammonia to be potential weapons of mass destruction. If attacked by a terrorist or disturbed individual in the middle of a city they could cause thousands of deaths.

The finalization of the rail routing rule is one of the latest “midnight rule changes” pushed through by the outgoing administration in an effort imprint its preferences on the federal bureaucracy.

It’s a common political maneuver when the White House changes hands. But it’s controversial, and although many last-minute rule changes are eventually reversed, it takes time.

In this instance, the regulation leaves the decision of which route to take with deadly chemicals primarily in the hands of the railroads. Critics contend that this leaves too many communities vulnerable to a serious security threat and that state, local, and federal officials should have more input to ensure the chemicals are transported along the shortest, safest, and most secure routes.

States want more say in train routing

The National Conference of State Legislatures has called on the incoming Obama administration to rescind the regulation quickly.

“These are going to be seemingly unilateral routing decisions made by the railroads without the ability of state and local policymakers or other knowledgeable experts to have any input whatsoever as to how these trains are routed through our jurisdictions,” says Susan Parnas Frederick, federal affairs counsel of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Bush administration and the railroads defend the rule, saying it will require the railroads to ensure such materials are shipped on the “safest and most secure” routes. The railroads must assess 27 different criteria before determining which route is best, including proximity to densely populated and environmentally sensitive areas. Officials at the Federal Railroad Administration also say that there is a specific mechanism in the new rule that allows local officials to have input about their own communities.

“There is an opportunity for local communities to provide their views on potential routings,” says Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. “And if they believe the railroad’s decision did not take their concerns into account, they could certainly come to us and ask us to audit the railroad’s decision.”