D.C. lawmakers and environmentalists are accusing the Bush administration of waiting until after the Nov. 2 election to decide whether to require railroads to route hazardous materials around Washington, charging that security is taking a back seat to politics.
Since the District introduced legislation a year ago to bar hazardous material shipments from a CSX Corp. rail line through the city, the Transportation Security Administration has missed several self-imposed deadlines to address the issue.
"This president, this administration, is playing politics in an election year with the safety of my community and my family," D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), co-sponsor of the bill and chairwoman of the council's Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference. "That is unconscionable. It is unforgivable."
Each year, as many as 8,500 rail cars carrying chlorine, ammonia and hydrochloric and sulfuric acid roll through the city. About 6 million tons of chemical freight a year traverses the capital along the CSX route, passing within four blocks of the Capitol, south of the Mall and across the Potomac River, according to the National Capital Planning Commission, which wants to study moving the line.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the city and the Bush administration have been grappling with how to regulate the highly toxic chemicals. Critics contend that the administration already has decided to allow the chemical industry to voluntarily reroute potentially dangerous chemicals but that it is withholding an announcement until mid-November.
Department of Homeland Security officials said that no such decision has been made and that delays in funding and program planning are to blame for the timing, not politics. Administration and industry officials said that environmental groups, several of which favor Democrats, are the ones playing politics and that such groups as Greenpeace, which is lobbying for a ban, have longstanding positions against any use of some toxic chemicals.
Administration sources said they face criticism either way; if they announced a ban on hazardous material shipments in the capital, Bush would be denounced for fanning terrorism fears before the election.
"The big picture is we were waiting for money and making sure we have programs in place," said Thomas J. Lockwood, national capital region coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security. He explained that his agency only recently received its appropriation from Congress for fiscal 2005.
The dispute comes near the end of a presidential race in which President Bush and Vice President Cheney have cast Bush as the champion of the war against terror, warned that a weapon-of-mass-destruction attack on a U.S. city is the greatest threat facing the nation and accused the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), of being too weak to lead. Kerry has vowed to lead a united global campaign to kill terrorists and accused Bush of not doing enough on homeland security.
Federal safety reports indicate that the rupture or sabotage of a 90-ton rail car carrying chlorine in Washington could kill or injure people living within 14 miles, depending on wind direction and weather. A chief U.S. Naval Research Laboratory scientist testified before D.C. Council members last winter that a catastrophic release near a gathering such as the Independence Day celebration on the Mall could kill 100 people per second and 100,000 in 30 minutes.
At the request of Homeland Security, CSX has delayed or rerouted hazmat shipments during certain events, including the State of the Union address and last year's NFL season kickoff celebration on the Mall.
But federal regulators and rail and chemical industry representatives said that a permanent ban on shipments through the District would trigger a rush by any number of cities and states to shift the risk elsewhere, disrupting the economy, raising costs and creating other security problems.
The vulnerability of chemical supplies and shipments has been a top concern for counterterrorism and FBI officials, who long have worried about a domestic version of the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, in which a leak at a Union Carbide Corp. pesticide plant killed at least 2,000 people and injured tens of thousands.
The issue has become particularly thorny in Washington. TSA and Federal Railroad Administration officials opened talks with the District after the D.C. Council held a public hearing in January on the proposed ban. Now proponents say federal authorities are dragging their feet in announcing a security plan for regional rail transport.
U.S. officials said that they completed some work in April, including a study of rail control points after walking the sensitive 14-mile-long rail corridor but that they are not ready to release details.
Environmental groups said a TSA official, Steve Rybicki, told them during the summer that a plan was "on track" for public release by mid-July. Later, TSA spokeswoman Amy Von Walter said an announcement was set for Sept. 1.
This week, however, Patterson said Lockwood told her that the Bush administration's plan would not be announced until mid-November. "Since it has been delayed repeatedly since spring, I have no real assurance it will be presented then," Patterson said. She said she plans to introduce emergency legislation Nov. 9 to bar the chemical shipments.
"This smacks of political game playing, which has no place in crucial homeland security issues," Rick Hind, legislative director for the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign, wrote TSA, backed by groups including Public Citizen, Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.
Environmental groups stoked the tension after Lockwood told a Greater Washington Board of Trade representative that TSA had struck an agreement with industry. Jim Dougherty, legal chairman of the Sierra Club chapter in Washington, e-mailed colleagues what he said was an excerpt from an e-mail by John E. "Chip" Akridge III, head of the board of trade's emergency preparedness committee and a prominent Washington developer.
In it, Akridge wrote: "Tom [Lockwood] said that an agreement has been reached between the private interests and the Feds as to how to handle the situation!!! However, because of the sensitivity of the issues, he could not tell me what the decisions were and that no public announcement will be made until right after the election -- probably by 11/15."
Akridge said later in an interview, "I don't think this had anything to do with politics . . . This is very sensitive topic with the elections, from the security point of view in general."
Lockwood said he did not recall specifics of the conversations and did not know when the report would be released or what it would say.
TSA spokesman Brian Doyle said that agency predictions of a September announcement were "optimistic."
"Would we have liked to have it earlier? . . . Yes," Doyle said. "We finally got Congress to move forward . . . As money moves through the procurement process, we're going to be able to move forward."
D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), co-sponsor of the bill to reroute hazardous materials, said she has been assured by Lockwood and others that they are making progress toward the safety measures in the legislation.
"I cannot imagine that there would be political decisions being made on an important issue like this," Schwartz said.
Although Schwartz said she would push an emergency D.C. bill in December if no federal announcement is made, federal regulators and rail and chemical industry representatives said a District ban would be preempted by federal interstate commerce and hazardous material transportation laws. If allowed, they said, a D.C. ban would prompt other localities to seek similar treatment.
"You end up with this patchwork quilt. Railroads and freight move on a network -- it flows in a system," CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said.
Tom White, spokesman for the American Association of Railroads, agreed: "You aren't really eliminating a hazard; you're merely shifting it from one community to another." Rerouting can increase risk, requiring hazmat freight to travel longer distances on less secure routes or shifting it onto highways, where White said release rates are 16 times as great.
Deputy TSA Administrator Steven McHale testified before a House panel this summer that there is "no effective way to route [hazardous materials] differently" because an alternate Norfolk Southern rail line through West Virginia is narrower and "much more curvy," raising other safety concerns. The next route west is beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
CSX, the Association of American Railroads and the American Chemistry Council said they are working with government to add safeguards, many of them classified, including guards, surveillance, around-the-clock communication with federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies and stronger rail cars.