U.S., railroads said to set voluntary standards on toxic shipments in D.C.

By Joe Fiorill

October 20, 2004

The United States and railroad companies have agreed on voluntary measures by the companies to address terrorism-vulnerability concerns posed by shipments of chlorine and other toxic materials through the nation's capital, activist groups said Tuesday.

Greenpeace and Public Citizen criticized the voluntary nature of the purported agreement and said President Bush's administration was putting politics before security by delaying any announcement on the plan until after next month's elections.

The groups expressed concern that the agreed measures would not include rerouting the trains - which Greenpeace said "can now be turned into weapons of mass destruction" by attackers - to avoid the city.

The shipments of chlorine gas, which opponents say could create a massive cloud if attacked that would endanger hundreds of thousands of lives, pass within blocks of the U.S. Capitol and other sensitive locations in the center of Washington. Greenpeace has documented the presence and accessibility in Washington of trains clearly labeled to indicate toxic contents such as chlorine, and reports suggest thousands of the shipments may be passing through the city each year.

"The feds have all the authority they need to require rerouting, and they simply choose not to do it," District of Columbia Council member Kathy Patterson, who last year sponsored an unsuccessful proposal to reroute the trains, said in an interview.

Railroads have opposed rerouting, citing economic drawbacks. Neither the Homeland Security Department nor CSX, the major rail company involved, responded to repeated requests for comment in time for this article.

The vulnerability of chlorine shipments through the capital has become a hot topic since the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. Activists say the availability of high-powered rifles and other weapons and the accessibility of urban rail lines make shipping highly toxic materials through cities such as Washington a bad idea.

In an oft-cited presentation to the District of Columbia Council, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory scientist Jay Boris said the rupture of a rail tanker carrying a toxic chemical in central Washington could quickly cause mass death.

In a "worst-case scenario" involving a stiff breeze, a large holiday crowd on the National Mall and "the absence of an early warning and concerted action," Boris said, "Over 100,000 people could be seriously harmed or even killed in the first half an hour."

Bosnian Muslim and Chechen forces have employed chlorine and ammonia - another material that is shipped by rail through Washington - in weapons in recent years, and such materials are widely available in the United States, according to RAND Corp. political scientist Theodore Karasik.

In a 2002 report for the U.S. Air Force, Karasik said U.S. officials preparing for the 1996 Olympics studied the specific possibility of "improvised chemical devices such as the use of high explosives by terrorists to puncture a train car loaded with chlorine gas."

"Toxic warfare remains a possibility within the United States in large part because of the size of the U.S. industrial infrastructure, which makes greater use of toxic chemicals and produces more industrial waste than any other country in the world," Karasik wrote.

As the United States began bombing Afghanistan in October 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, railroads stopped shipping hazardous chemicals for three days. Amid talks on whether and how to reroute the trains or implement permanent security improvements, shipments have been halted for such events as presidential State of the Union speeches and a National Football League festival last year on the National Mall, featuring pop star Britney Spears.

"We're in harm's way 24/7," Patterson said at a press conference this week, "but thank goodness Britney's not."

A year ago tomorrow, Patterson and fellow council members David Catania and Carol Schwartz introduced their bill to reroute the shipments. Council sources recently indicated the plan has been effectively killed as the federal government exercised its prerogative to review all new District of Columbia laws.

The bill would prohibit shipments of chlorine and similar substances through the city except as authorized by a hard-to-obtain city permit: Rail and road shippers seeking such a permit from the city Transportation Department would have to demonstrate "that no practical alternative route to passage through the District of Columbia exists," that "the ultimate destination for the hazardous materials is an approved facility located in the District of Columbia" or that "an emergency requires passage through the district."

With the bill apparently stalled, Patterson said yesterday that council members are preparing a new measure that would require shippers to notify the city of hazardous shipments and would initiate vulnerability assessments.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., on July 13 of this year introduced a related bill that would allow the city to reroute hazardous shipments. The House Judiciary Committee subsequently approved inclusion of the bill in legislation to implement the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, but the final House bill did not include Markey's measure.

Preferring an administrative rather than a legislative solution, the Bush administration has "been saying … repeatedly since the middle of the spring" that it would address the problem, Patterson said.

"I think we should have moved forward" already, however, she said. "I also have no confidence in the Bush administration."

A federal-local working group created to explore the situation has completed a vulnerability assessment, a "buffer-zone protection plan" and a "hazard analysis of control points" such as passenger-rail stations, according to Greenpeace Toxics Campaign Legislative Director Rick Hind's notes from a meeting in May of this year with the federal Transportation Security Administration's top cargo-security official, Steve Rybicki.

The latest concrete sign of progress of the effort to secure the shipments was a notice that appeared two months ago in the Federal Register. The Transportation and Homeland Security departments published the notice to solicit comments on the feasibility of steps to reduce the risk posed by shipments of substances that are toxic by inhalation.

Proposed steps included "improvements to security plans, modification of methods used to identify shipments, enhanced requirements for temporary storage, strengthened tank car integrity and implementation of tracking and communication systems." Unmentioned in the notice was the possibility of rerouting the trains, a step rail companies and administration officials have consistently opposed.

"It might be tempting to simply reroute such shipments around major metropolitan areas," Federal Railroad Administration head Allan Rutter told a House subcommittee in May, but "we'd have to consider the operational consequences of such a move for cities like Houston or New Orleans or Los Angeles, where those chemicals are manufactured and used. … Facilities located there would be at a competitive disadvantage, affecting thousands of high-wage jobs."

Testifying at the same hearing, Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger said, "The uninterrupted flow of hazardous materials is necessary for the health and safety of the U.S., as well as its economic growth."

Environmental and consumer groups have bristled at such statements, rejecting any approach that would be driven by the industry.

Hind wrote the Transportation Department Tuesday expressing "extreme concern that before the closing of this comment period, we have learned from informed sources that the federal government has reached an agreement with the railroads on a rail security plan for the Washington, D.C., area."

"In addition, we have learned that any rerouting by CSX may be 'voluntary' and that this arrangement will not be announced until mid-November," Hind wrote. "This smacks of political game-playing, which has no place in crucial homeland-security issues. … Any agreements or decisions regarding Washington, D.C., should not wait until after the election but should be announced immediately."

In an interview yesterday, Hind said announcing a plan before the elections could stoke voter opposition to Bush in areas through which rerouted shipments - in the event some provision for rerouting was made in the plan - would pass or in cities through which toxic shipments would continue to travel.

According to Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, making the rail-security measures purely voluntary would be especially dangerous in light of Transportation Security Administration chief David Stone's April 6 statement that any District of Columbia plan would serve as "the baseline" for related situations around the country.

"A voluntary agreement on the rerouting of extremely dangerous hazmat transportation in the nation's capital," Claybrook wrote Tuesday in a letter to the Transportation Department, "would set a perilously low baseline for homeland security and would leave company decisions to the caprice of the marketplace and profit considerations rather than security and safety."

By Joe Fiorill

October 20, 2004