There's little doubt that if a nuclear or biological weapon were discovered in a crowded stadium or at a busy airport, the federal government would act swiftly and decisively to remove the threat, preserve public calm and bring the guilty parties to justice. Yet, the Bush administration continues to turn a blind eye to a major threat that is comparable in scope: toxic chemicals carried by rail cars through densely populated cities and towns.
According to security experts, chemicals that are toxic if inhaled represent a potential for mass casualties that is rivaled only by nuclear devices, bioterrorism and the collapse of large, occupied buildings. Yet, 90-ton rail tankers filled with deadly chemicals and other hazardous materials roll slowly through our major cities every day over unprotected and unguarded rails, with no warning to those communities.
Terrorists understand the destruction they could unleash by blowing up these tankers. The FBI and CIA have uncovered evidence that terrorists have targeted our domestic rail system. This shouldn't be a surprise. As we've seen recently in Madrid and London, rail systems are among the most frequently attacked terrorist targets worldwide.
The potential death toll of a tanker attack is staggering. The Chlorine Institute has estimated that an assault on a chlorine tanker could create a toxic cloud extending up to 15 miles. If this poisonous fog drifted over Capitol Hill, where deadly chemicals are transported just four blocks from the U.S. Capitol, thousands of people could be killed and Congress and the Supreme Court could be shut down for an extended period.
In fact, the Naval Research Laboratory has estimated that up to 100,000 people could be killed or injured in less than a half-hour by such an attack. Hospitals would be inundated with patients seeking treatment for burns to the eyes, skin and lungs. Thousands of panicked residents would need to be evacuated.
To address this threat and protect the millions of people who live in, work in and visit our nation's capital, the D.C. Council recently passed a law banning hazardous shipments from coming within 2.2 miles of the Capitol building. Many other cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland, are considering similar protective actions.
The rail industry has been joined by the Bush administration in blocking the D.C. law from taking effect, arguing that federal law preempts local bans and that it is the responsibility of the federal government to address this threat.
On this point we all agree: Protecting Americans from terrorists requires a robust federal response. Inexplicably, Congress and the White House refuse to live up to that responsibility, even in the face of known risks. Former deputy homeland security adviser Richard A. Falkenrath publicly acknowledges that the federal government has "essentially done nothing" to reduce this threat.
In an effort to plug this gaping hole in our national defense, I recently introduced legislation to force the Department of Homeland Security to establish a national policy for dealing with the transport of the world's most dangerous chemicals. If this legislation is enacted, cities and states will be notified before hazardous materials roll through town, and coordinated response plans will be developed. The bill would also require the Department of Homeland Security to study and report to Congress on security-enhancing measures such as secondary containment technologies, satellite-based tracking of shipments and the feasibility of smaller, more secure tankers.
Critics argue that it is impossible to protect thousands of miles of train tracks. But the choice isn't all or nothing. We can make our rail systems safer and reduce the chance of catastrophic attack by focusing resources on critical areas and by rerouting deadly chemicals away from population centers and other areas that security experts -- and common sense -- tell us are most vulnerable.
Some big rail corporations say that rerouting hazardous shipments would be expensive and that more time in transit could lead to more accidents. But the hazardous materials subject to potential rerouting under my bill would amount to less than 5 percent of the total.
The current state of our rail security system is worse than an accident waiting to happen; it is an open invitation to terrorists. We need to close these loopholes before terrorists exploit them.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Delaware and the ranking member of his party on the Judiciary subcommittee on crime.