WASHINGTON (AP) _ Washington’s decision to ban shipments of deadly chemicals and explosives through its neighborhoods may inspire other cities to follow suit _ to the railroad industry’s dismay.
Washington’s city council on Tuesday passed emergency legislation that would for 90 days block train and truck shipments of hazardous materials within two miles of the Capitol _ anywhere in the federal heart of the city where Congress, the president and the Supreme Court work.
The idea could ``be symbolic and start spreading across the nation,″ said Arizona Homeland Security Director Frank Navarette, who worries about the tanker railcars that are next to the Statehouse in Phoenix.
The railroad industry isn’t happy about that possibility.
``If other communities then passed similar bans, it could make it impossible to ship these materials anywhere,″ American Association of Railroads President Ed Hamberger said in a statement.
The Transportation Department will review whether the ban is legal once Mayor Anthony Williams signs it into law. CSX, which owns tracks that run four blocks from the Capitol, says it may take the city to court.
Mayors and state homeland security officials are eyeing the budding dispute with interest. They’re mindful that a train derailment could have potentially catastrophic consequences if deadly gases were released.
According to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, a rupture of a chlorine tank car next to the National Mall could kill 100,000 people within a half-hour, depending on the weather.
In 2001, a freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed inside of a Baltimore tunnel, shutting down the city for days, postponing baseball games and causing millions of dollars in damages.
Baltimore Mayor Michael O’Malley is closely following the developments in Washington, said spokeswoman Rachel Guillory. ``We’ll continue to watch how this plays out,″ she said.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said other cities will follow Washington’s lead if the federal government doesn’t order hazardous shipments rerouted from crowded neighborhoods.
``I expect the D.C. Council vote to be the first, but not the last, vote of its kind,″ said Markey, who plans to file a bill to require rerouting trains that carry dangerous materials when there’s a better alternative.
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Mark Hatfield said rerouting is just one way to make sure freight is shipped safely.
Railroads have already tightened security, he said, and the government takes ``a very determined and deliberative approach to find out where the vulnerabilities are.″
Without being specific, Hatfield said voluntary security measures could include rerouting cars, fencing, buffer zones, motion detectors, video surveillance cameras, sniffer dogs and uniformed and undercover patrols.
The railroad association says its safety record shows that rerouting isn’t necessary: Of 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials shipped annually, 99.996 percent arrive safely.
But local officials aren’t so sure.
``Is it being done as safely as it can be done?″ asked Bob Young, mayor of Augusta, Ga. ``That’s the question we’re all seeking the answer to.″
Augusta is 10 miles from Graniteville, S.C., where last month a train wreck unleashed a toxic cloud of chlorine gas that killed nine people and injured 234.
Young headed a group of 51 mayors who signed a letter on Jan. 18 to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge asking that they be notified when hazardous materials are shipped through their cities.
``The experience in Graniteville showed us you don’t need a terrorist to have an incident that has the same effect as the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction,″ Young said.
A notification system for hazardous shipments could be modeled on the one already used for nuclear waste, Young said.
But CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said the railroad operates more than a half-million loads of hazardous material a year.
``Are you going to have someone standing there getting 50 faxes a day?″ Sullivan asked. ``And what are they going to do about it?″
James Carafano, a homeland security expert with the think tank Heritage Foundation, said railroads fear exposing themselves to legal liability if they disclose sensitive information. That makes it difficult for the government to set reasonable safety and security standards, he said.
``D.C. passed the law because there’s no transparency. There’s no transparency because they don’t have information. They don’t have information because of liability concerns,″ Carafano said.
On the Net:
Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov
Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov
American Association of Railroads: http://www.aar.org
Transportation Department: http://www.dot.gov