Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Washington, in a First, to Limit Hazardous-Material Shipments


Washington will soon become the nation's first city to curtail the shipment of highly toxic chemicals inside its borders to prevent the chemicals from becoming a target for terrorists.

A majority of the nation's capital's 13-member City Council approved yesterday a bill that requires transporters of ultrahazardous chemicals, flammable gases and explosives to skirt a 2.2-mile radius around the U.S. Capitol building. No shipments by road or rail will be permitted through the zone unless there is no viable alternative route, or there is an emergency.

The bill sets up a confrontation with federal rail regulators and CSX Corp., which owns the local rail lines. Both have said that a local ban will violate constitutional provisions that give the federal government alone the power to regulate interstate commerce, and could open the floodgates for similar laws passed by other cities, bringing rail transport to a crawl.

Officials in a handful of cities in California and the Midwest are already looking at similar measures, and watching Washington's actions as a possible precedent. More than 50 members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security expressing concerns about hazardous rail shipments through their cities and demanding, at the least, more disclosure about them. "Our citizens should have a reasonable expectation that hazardous materials are being shipped in the safest manner possible and that local first responders are aware of such shipments in advance."

The District of Columbia's bill was written as "emergency" legislation that will stay in effect for 90 days after being signed by Mayor Anthony Williams, who has said he supports the measure. Washington officials say the short-term bill doesn't require Congressional approval. A more-permanent law, which would have to be vetted by Congress, is already planned.

While the measure carries symbolic and legal significance, the short-term effect may be slight. In November, representatives of CSX told Washington council members that the company had already been rerouting—at least temporarily—the most serious hazardous materials away from the city since train bombings in Madrid in March.

Mark Hatfield Jr., spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security's Transport Security Administration, called the proposal unnecessary, saying "the spirit of that legislation is already being met by CSX, TSA and the Department of Homeland Security, who have already been working together for quite some time to address the threat." The Department of Homeland Security conducted risk-assessment and security studies of 42 miles of track in the area last year and said that it has implemented safeguards but hasn't released results of the studies or details of its security plan.

CSX called the emergency ban "unfortunate" and said it was reviewing the move and would take "all appropriate steps" when it is finished. One possibility would be to sue for an injunction.

As many as 8,500 rail cars carrying hazardous chemicals traverse Washington but only a fraction of those—fewer than 1,000 cars—carry toxic inhalants such as chlorine and ammonia that cause the most concern. Chlorine is used in water-treatment plants and ammonia is a common ingredient in refrigeration systems. The rail line has attracted national attention because it passes within a few hundred yards of the Mall and Capitol. A Naval Research Laboratory scientist estimated last year that in a worst-case event, a catastrophic chlorine release could kill 100,000 people living within 14 miles, depending on wind direction and weather.

Former White House Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Richard Falkenrath told a Senate hearing last week that the danger posed by an attack on a shipment of a so-called toxic-by-inhalation chemical—such as chlorine gas—was "uniquely severe and particularly acute." He said the deaths and injuries that could be inflicted by a successful strike "present a mass-casualty terrorist potential rivaled only by improvised nuclear devices, certain acts of bioterrorism, and the collapse of large, occupied buildings."