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D.C. Ready to Forbid Hazmat Rail Shipments

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page B04

Spurred by several deadly U.S. rail accidents, D.C. lawmakers said they have gained the votes to ban train and truck shipments of hazardous materials through the nation's capital on an emergency basis as soon as Tuesday.

Bill sponsor Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said nine of 13 D.C. Council members have signed on as co-sponsors, giving the measure the support needed to implement a ban immediately for 90 days, an emergency action that does not require congressional review. The measure would prohibit shipments of certain explosives, flammable gases and poisonous gases and materials without a permit within 2.2 miles of the Capitol.

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Council members reached yesterday confirmed that they would vote for the emergency measure. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has promised to sign it, Patterson said.

Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), whose committee has oversight over the issue, opposes the bill. The Bush administration and CSX Corp., which owns the freight rail line that runs through Washington, have worked on voluntary rerouting of shipments since April based on information about potential threats, Schwartz said.

The rail line has attracted national scrutiny because it cuts through sensitive sectors of Washington, passing within a few hundred yards of the Mall and Capitol, for instance. A Naval Research Laboratory scientist estimated last year that in a worst-case event, a catastrophic chlorine release could kill 100,000 people in the area.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security conducted risk assessment and security studies of 42 miles of track in the area last year. It has implemented safeguards but has not released results of the studies publicly.

CSX and federal rail regulators have said a District ban would violate constitutional provisions that give the federal government alone the power to regulate interstate commerce, and Homeland Security officials said rerouting could create safety problems elsewhere.

Supporters cited Wednesday's commuter train derailment and collision near Los Angeles that killed 11 and injured more than 200 as an example of why a ban is necessary. The crash was triggered by a suicidal man who parked his SUV on the tracks. Also, on Jan. 6, a chlorine leak after a train crash killed nine and forced the evacuation of 5,400 people from Graniteville, S.C. A collision of two trains in June in rural Texas released a cloud of chlorine gas that killed three people.

"If one guy having a bad day can derail two trains, why can't a determined terrorist group derail a hazardous material train in Washington?" asked Jim Dougherty of the Sierra Club's Washington chapter. "It would be very easy, and the consequences could be 100,000 dead."

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