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D.C. Wants Rail Hazmats Banned

S.C. Wreck Renews Fears for Capital

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page B01

A new District effort to ban trains carrying chlorine and other dangerous chemicals past the U.S. Capitol and through the region is picking up steam after a deadly train accident in South Carolina last week.

The subsequent chlorine gas spill killed nine, injured hundreds and led to the evacuation of 5,400. A similar accident in the Washington area would be magnitudes worse, officials say.

Crews continue to clear debris and neutralize and remove chlorine gas after the train wreck in South Carolina last week that killed nine people. (Andrew Davis Tucker -- Augusta Chronicle Via AP)

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"This region and the federal establishment are sleeping through the most pressing security issue facing the entire region," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Members of the D.C. Council are preparing to try again to ban chlorine and other toxic substances from trains that wind through the District and its suburbs. Similar legislation was defeated last year after homeland security and railroad officials reassured Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and others that they would reduce the risk to city residents.

But those reassurances have not satisfied council members Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who plan to seek a legislative ban.

" 'Trust us -- we're the government' is not good enough," Mendelson said.

If D.C. officials succeed in banning hazardous materials carried by rail, it would be a first for a U.S. city, and the drive is being watched carefully by the shipping industry and environmental activists.

A CSX Corp. rail line in the District moves 8,500 chemical cars a year through the city, though only a fraction of those chemicals are toxic when inhaled.

A chief U.S. Naval Research Laboratory scientist projected that a worst-case release from a 90-ton tanker car of chlorine during an Independence Day celebration on the Mall could kill 100 people a second and 100,000 in 30 minutes.

At least one city official says new legislation is unnecessary.

Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said the District has everything it wants from government and CSX officials. She said the railroad stopped shipping chlorine and most other dangerous chemicals through the District after the March 11 terrorist train bombings in Madrid.

"None of this stuff has been coming through the District for the past 10 months," she said. "That has been accomplished."

She released a memo yesterday that she wrote to her council colleagues detailing a confidential Nov. 4 briefing. The briefing -- by homeland security, federal railroad and CSX officials -- was for city officials, including Williams, and was about the rerouting efforts.

"Even though these officials cannot for obvious security reasons speak specifically about what actions they have been taking in terms of rerouting, I did receive assurances from them that the intent of the permanent legislation is being met and that rerouting of hazardous materials around the District has been occurring since the train bombings in Madrid last March," Schwartz's memo says.

Schwartz, chairman of the council's public works committee, said any new legislation forcing a permanent ban could upset the informal agreement and result in opposition by railroad officials. Railroad officials say they do not want to fight this battle in every town in the country with railroad tracks.

"We are acutely aware of the sensitivities of Washington, D.C., and other communities on our system," said Robert T. Sullivan, a spokesman for CSX. "But when you have individual communities legislating these things, you run the risk of creating a much larger problem."

But Patterson, who also attended the Nov. 4 briefing, said Schwartz may be overstating the promises by railroad officials.

"We need a permanent rerouting, and they have not made that commitment," Patterson said. "This is the nation's capital, and our status as the national capital is not going to change."

Patterson said she has higher hopes of passing the bill this year. A spokeswoman for Williams said the mayor would sign such a bill.

"I think we need a policy that gets the toxics out of the city," Patterson said.

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