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Timeout Proposed In Hazmat Rail Fight

Judge Hopes for Deal Between D.C., CSX

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page B01

A federal judge said yesterday that he wants to broker a compromise between the D.C. government and CSX Transportation in the dispute over rail shipments of hazardous materials through the city.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan proposed a 30-day cooling-off period for settlement talks. Under the judge's plan, the city would delay enforcing a looming ban on hazardous rail shipments and CSX would not move the cargo on rails in the District during the 30 days.

Freight cars move into a CSX yard in Cumberland, Md., where hazmat cars would be bunched if the cargo was forced to circumvent the District. (Timothy Jacobsen -- AP)

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"This case will either be a model for future litigation, or a model for settling these disputes and improving security for a community," Sullivan said. "We need to spend our money and time trying to settle this case so everyone can leave with their heads held high, knowing the security of the District residents remains paramount."

The case stems from a new D.C. law that prohibits the shipment of hazardous materials on the 37 miles of rail lines in the city. City leaders said the ban was necessary because the nation's capital is a probable target for terrorist attacks, and an attack on a rail car loaded with propane or chlorine could release a poisonous cloud capable of killing 100,000 residents.

CSX filed a lawsuit to overturn the ban, saying only that the federal government has the power to regulate rail security and that such bans could cripple the nation's rail transportation. The Justice Department is siding with CSX.

The ban was scheduled to go into effect Monday. Attorneys for the D.C. government agreed yesterday to tentatively put off implementing it until at least April 20 while the judge tries to get settlement talks moving.

Attorneys for the District, CSX and the Justice Department told Sullivan yesterday that they had to confer with their clients about whether they could accept the judge's 30-day cooling-off period and that they would have an answer tomorrow.

Vincent Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said the city is acting in the interest of safety. "If this is the best way to do it, then we're open to it," Morris said of the judge's proposal. "But we're not convinced of that yet."

Sullivan received a private briefing Monday covering rail security efforts from federal authorities. The briefing, the judge said, left him confident that he could help the District and railroad strike a deal. Yesterday, he called on President Bush to instruct the Justice Department to provide as much information as possible to senior D.C. officials about the work to safeguard District rail lines.

"I can settle this case, but I can't do it alone," Sullivan said. "I need the president's help. . . . There is no way I can broker this deal if the District is left totally in the dark about what the federal government is doing. They have to know what I know."

The judge's proposal raised the hopes of some city leaders that federal officials privately told Sullivan they have begun making substantive efforts to secure rail shipments and had alternatives for rerouting hazardous materials to minimize risk to the District.

Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who introduced the legislation, applauded the judge's proposal and said she hoped it was a sign of federal plans to reroute trains.

"I'm delighted Judge Sullivan put the issue where it squarely belongs, which is with the White House," she said. "If the federal government had done its job of reducing risk and protecting the homeland, we wouldn't have these hazardous materials coming through the District."

The judge had initially set a timetable to rule by Friday on CSX's request for an injunction to stop the law from taking effect. Yesterday, he reminded the attorneys that any ruling he makes is likely to be appealed. At one point, he urged CSX attorney Irvin Nathan to stop focusing on his desire to obtain a ruling on whether the city has the authority to ban such shipments.

"You've got a lot to lose here. If you lose, you have to worry next about [bans in] Pittsburgh and Baltimore," the judge said. "Focus on what I have to say. Put your litigation back in your briefcase."

Nathan said that the rail company was willing to consider temporarily rerouting trains but warned that it would be "like turning a battleship" to do so on such short notice. Sullivan said the railroad could make it work.

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