D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday that he would sign emergency legislation to bar railroads from shipping hazardous materials through the nation's capital if the Bush administration fails to prohibit the potentially lethal cargo in the next two weeks.
Speaking at a council hearing on gaps in the city's preparedness for another terror attack, Williams (D) said he is inclined to give the Bush administration time "to work this out administratively." But if federal authorities do not take action before Nov. 9, when council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) plans to ask the council to approve an emergency bill, Williams said he "would support the legislation."
The mayor said he does not believe that the Bush administration is playing politics with the issue, as Patterson and environmentalists have alleged. Since a year ago, when District lawmakers began considering legislation to force railroads to route hazardous materials around the city, the Transportation Security Administration has missed several self-imposed deadlines to address the issue. It now says it will not announce new regulations regarding hazardous shipments until after the Nov. 2 election.
Williams said he is "a 'jar is half-full' person on this thing. . . . I would want to believe that there really aren't any politics involved." Nonetheless, after a year of waiting, the mayor said he is open to the argument that council action is needed, if only for "symbolic reasons."
"If I were shown there was no real willingness [by federal authorities] to move on a matter that was really just critical to the health and safety of my residents, then I would support it. You have no other choice," Williams said.
The mayor's statements came during a hearing before the council's Judiciary Committee, which called more than a dozen witnesses to address efforts by the city and federal government to respond to and prevent future terrorist attacks. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge did not attend the hearing. But Richard Ben-Veniste, a D.C. lawyer who sat on the national 9/11 commission, did.
Ben-Veniste told council members that three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, federal authorities have yet to produce a "formal written protocol" laying out the federal government's role in a new attack. "Local officials indicate that they know they are very likely to be preempted by the federal government in a crisis, but they do not know when, why and by whom!" he said.
Ben-Veniste also criticized the Bush administration's failure to address the issue of hazardous chemicals in freight trains, which he called "a clear risk to the health and safety of residents of Washington, D.C."
Since the 2001 attacks, the Bush administration has grappled with how to regulate the transport of such chemicals as chlorine and ammonia, which could produce a toxic cloud capable of killing or injuring thousands if released in downtown Washington. As many as 8,500 rail cars a year carry such freight along a CSX Corp. rail line that runs within four blocks of the Capitol.
CSX and the chemical industry say they are working with the government to safeguard the shipments. They say that a ban in the District would trigger similar requests by other cities, disrupting commerce.
Patterson and other local officials argue that the nation's capital deserves special treatment. Under Patterson's proposal, the District would ban shipments of certain highly toxic chemicals through the city unless those materials are for local use.
Yesterday, Patterson called the mayor's statement of support for her emergency bill "very good news." Under D.C. law, the council can approve such legislation in a single day. The bill would take effect for 90 days immediately upon receiving the mayor's signature.
Patterson said she is not sure who would enforce the temporary law. She predicted that the rail and chemical industries would ask a judge to block its implementation.