The controversy over freight trains hauling hazardous cargoes through downtown Washington, DC, has come back to life with a new report issued by the National Capital Planning Commission. It calls for hazmat shipments to be diverted from the city to the suburbs despite a federal court order that stopped Washington from banning these trains two years ago. At least a half-dozen other cities that are major rail centers have considered similar measures and are watching this case with great interest.
The Planning Commission, whose nine-month study cost $1 million to prepare, can only make recommendations and has no enforcement power in this case. But its report can influence the District of Columbia government and the U.S. Congress - which could have a lot to say about the kind of cargo being carried on the busy railroad tracks that cut across its back yard.
Republicans were in control of Congress when the issue first came up in 2004 and there was no inclination to take any action on what was viewed as a local problem. But with the Democrats now in control, there could be a different attitude about imposing federal regulations.
To understand the issues, you have to know something about the area involved. It's the main line of the CSX Railroad, a two-mile stretch of track that crosses the Potomac River from Virginia into southwest Washington. For about 16 blocks, it runs near or next to a dozen federal office buildings, including congressional offices, the U.S. Capitol, a huge power plant and numerous tourist attractions. Any one of them could be a symbolic target for terrorists. A branch line goes into a tunnel that carries passenger trains under Capitol Hill to Union Station. On a typical day, hundreds of thousands of workers and visitors are in this area and there's good reason to be fearful of an accident or a terrorist attack that could cause a fire, explosion, chemical leak or toxic cloud along the railroad's right-of-way. More than 8,000 rail cars carrying chemicals travel these tracks in the course of a year.
That, and a series of train wrecks in other parts of the country that involved hazardous materials, caused the City Council to pass a law banning freight trains with dangerous cargoes. CSX claimed it would cost $3 million a year to reroute the trains (about 30 per day) and filed a lawsuit to stop the ban. All of the federal agencies with a stake in the case, including the Department of Homeland Security, opposed the city and sided with the railroad. A federal district court ruled in favor of the city, but that verdict was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2005, which held that the Council's action interfered with interstate commerce and was unconstitutional. CSX was free to run its trains with hazmat loads.
However, despite winning the court case, the railroad on its own has been secretly rerouting some of the most dangerous hazmat shipments for several years. For obvious security reasons, no one will talk publicly about the details. Apparently, most state and local officials were not aware of what's being diverted from the CSX main line to secondary lines in the Maryland suburbs. All they know for sure is that they don't like it.
The new study by the Planning Commission proposes three solutions to the problem: an eight-mile tunnel from the Potomac River to Maryland at a cost of $5.3 billion or, one of two above-ground routes that completely bypass Washington and reroute the trains from Virginia to Maryland. Each has a $4.3 billion price tag. Naturally, these proposals have intensified the protest from Maryland officials, who charge that their towns are being used as "dumping grounds" and that moving the problem from one jurisdiction to another doesn't solve anything.
Overlooked in all of this is the fact that terrorists have not targeted freight trains. There have been terrible freight train wrecks in this country in which people were killed and thousands evacuated because of hazmat situations - most often a chlorine leak with a toxic cloud - all caused by accidents rather than terrorism. But all of the terrorist attacks in England, Spain and India have been on subways or commuter trains crowded with rush-hour passengers and this is where our attention should be focused. The danger posed by freight trains cannot be ignored, but it is passenger trains that have produced mass casualties.
The dilemma facing Washington, its suburbs and other urban areas will not be quickly or easily resolved. But one thing is certain: if there is an accident or a terrorist attack, local fire departments will be the first responders and the vital question is how well prepared are they to deal with a major hazmat disaster? Some are, but many are not and still lack the manpower, training and resources that are needed. When it comes to your department, you're the only one who can answer that question.
HAL BRUNO, a Firehouse contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.