Three Democratic House members said yesterday that CSX Corp. has redirected rail shipments of hazardous materials away from Washington since the March 11 commuter train bombings in Madrid.
The decision to divert some chemical freight, which was confirmed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, acknowledges the potential risk the cargoes pose to the nation's capital if targeted by terrorists.
It comes as District officials battle with the Bush administration over the security-sensitive CSX rail line that passes through the city, crossing the Potomac River near the 14th Street bridge, paralleling the Mall and coming within four blocks of the U.S. Capitol. City leaders want to permanently bar shipments of such substances as chlorine, ammonia and hydrochloric and sulfuric acids.
Homeland security officials have said rerouting raises more security problems than it solves and have delayed a long-term decision on an issue that has been studied for eight months.
About 6 million tons of chemical freight pass through the District a year, according to the National Capital Planning Commission. Only a fraction, fewer than 1,000 cars, carry toxic inhalants that cause the most concern, officials say.
In a statement, Reps. Jim Turner (D-Tex.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) called on Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to explain why his department has not mandated rerouting and name the other cities being studied for rail threats. The lawmakers said their staffs had been briefed by CSX, law enforcement and homeland security officials.
"Rerouting may not always be the right option, but we will never know because the administration appears to have taken it off the table even though CSX has voluntarily rerouted dangerous cargoes for the last seven months," said Turner, the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. "This is wrong. All options must be considered to protect our nation's citizens."
Markey, a member of the panel along with Norton, added, "Even the railroad itself has evidently concluded these shipments are too dangerous to send through our nation's capital."
Ridge briefly touched on the issue Saturday, telling reporters that the U.S. has rerouted shipments. He did not give specifics. Describing talks with state and local officials since videotapes aired last week featuring Osama bin Laden and a man claiming to be an American affiliated with al Qaeda, Ridge said, "We will work with our cities to reroute, as we've done from time to time in the past, hazardous material, be it in truck or railroads, around some of our major urban areas."
A homeland security official confirmed yesterday that CSX has redirected certain cargoes from Washington at the government's request. The official cited examples elsewhere, from the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City to regular season professional football games in cities with stadiums near rail lines.
"Every day we have a better ability to target our security measures when a threat would warrant it, such as rerouting hazardous materials if need be," said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for Ridge. "We, of course, don't want to talk about the specifics."
Bob Sullivan, spokesman for Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Corp., said the rail giant also would not discuss details about security. "We have a series of things and countermeasures that are being taken and can be taken based on whatever information is made available to us. . . . We have cooperated with" federal security agencies, he said.
Sullivan declined to say whether the company has diverted any shipments without a government request.
Rick Hind, spokesman for Greenpeace Toxics Campaign, criticized Ridge for failing to disclose that the rerouting in the District has gone on since March. "Why have you kept it a secret?" Hind said. "There's a real question of adequate security for the whole country."
Safety studies posit that a worst-case accidental release of 90 tons of chemical from a tanker could kill or injure people up to 14 miles away or kill 100,000 people in a half-hour during a celebration on the Mall.