Fight Over Plan To Ban Hazmats A Test Case For High-Risk Areas

June 1, 2005

A legal battle is underway over Washington, DC’s effort to ban railroad shipments of hazardous materials within two miles of the U.S. Capitol. It has become a test case that could go all the way to the Supreme Court and the outcome is likely to have a far-reaching impact as other cities and states consider similar legislation to protect high-risk areas that have symbolic targets for acts of terrorism. The proposed ban is being opposed by the railroads and the federal government on grounds that the city’s action is an unconstitutional violation of interstate commerce laws.

The District of Columbia City Council passed the law earlier this year after the incident in Graniteville, SC, where nine people were killed and thousands had to be evacuated when a freight train derailment released a toxic cloud of chlorine gas. Also in mind was the July 2001 train wreck that touched off a raging chemical fire in Baltimore’s Howard Street Tunnel. The main line of the CSX railroad passes through downtown Washington and, at some points, is only a few blocks from the White House, the Capitol, House and Senate office buildings, the Supreme Court and other historic structures. The fear is that terrorists could sabotage a train carrying dangerous chemicals in a district that contains the heart of the federal government and hundreds of thousands of daytime workers and tourists.

CSX quickly filed suit in federal court to block the hazmat law, which it claimed would cause 11,000 railroad cars to be rerouted at an annual cost of $2 million to $3 million. The Justice, Transportation and Homeland Security departments supported the railroad, refusing to disclose what precautions are being taken to prevent attacks on trains carrying hazardous materials. They argued it would breach security to reveal that information and warned that other cities would impose tough hazmat restrictions if Washington were allowed to do so. Nevertheless, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled in favor of the city and refused to stop the law from taking effect. But his decision was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which held that CSX should be allowed to continue running its hazardous cargoes through Washington while the full case is waiting to be heard at the district court level.

A preview of what could happen was seen last month when a private airplane strayed into restricted air space and flew within three miles of the White House, thereby causing a red alert and the mass evacuation of buildings on Capitol Hill. In some buildings it seemed to work pretty well, but in others there was pandemonium and confusion. A Black Hawk helicopter and F-16 jet fighters surrounded the little Cessna and forced its baffled pilot to land in Frederick, MD. This was a false alarm, but it’s scary to think of what could happen if the threat had been a toxic cloud drifting over from the nearby railroad tracks. (It’s also sobering to think of what would happen if, some day, they actually shoot down a terrorist plane. The debris has to fall somewhere and that’s the problem a local fire department is going to have to deal with.)

There are all kinds of twists and turns in this controversy. For example, the city of Washington has received a $1 million grant from Homeland Security to study railroad security and the possibility of rerouting part of the rail line that brings freight trains with hazardous materials into the city. It seems ironic that the federal government will not restrict railroads from carrying these cargoes through “target-rich” areas, but insists on keeping the ban that prohibits private aircraft from using Reagan National Airport, which is two miles south of the White House and deep inside the 15-mile “no-fly” zone that surrounds the Washington area.

One bit of good news was the announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that the proposed plan to remove hazmat placards from railroad cars has been abandoned. This was a bad idea based on the theory that placards help terrorists by calling attention to potential targets. The fire service – which desperately needs to know what’s inside a leaking or burning tank car – strongly opposed the plan and was joined by many other interest groups in voicing their concerns. “We listened to you, we heard what you had to say,” Chertoff told attendees at the annual dinner of the Congressional Fire Services Institute in announcing that the placards are staying in place.

There’s a lot at stake and some important issues that concern the entire country. According to Trains magazine, chemicals and allied products generated $4.7 billion in gross freight revenues for the nation’s railroads in 2002. The big question is how much authority a local jurisdiction has to protect itself from a hazmat incident aboard a train that is passing through town. The answer: not much, but that could change if the courts eventually rule in favor of the District of Columbia in this case.

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.

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