New Rail Security Rules Leave Communities at Risk

New Rail Security Rules Leave Communities at Risk

Chris Weiss, 202-222-0746

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff and the U.S. Department of Transportation have today proposed two new federal rules concerning railroad operating procedures which will eventually increase security in only minor ways.  The new rules fail to require the most basic kind of risk reduction:  re-routing around major target cities — the only security measure that can significantly and urgently reduce what Richard Falkenrath, former top Bush Administration homeland security official and now a top Counter-Terrorism official in NY City, calls “the greatest vulnerability in the country today” [New York Times, 3/27/06]. 

U.S. chemical companies and railroads are continuing to place the workers, residents and visitors in Washington DC and 36 other federally-designated major target cities at terribly high risk by continued unnecessary through chemical shipments of cargoes which federal regulators call Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).  “CSXT and Norfolk Southern railroads, e.g., have adamantly refused to sign interchange agreements to re-route cargoes around DC and other target cities,” said Fred Millar of Friends of the Earth. “They are pre-positioning these explosive, radioactive and poison gas cargoes in our highest threat target areas, exactly where the terrorists want.”

Poison gas rail cargoes, with a volume of 100,000 shipments annually in the U.S., pose a clear danger of a toxic gas cloud release that can be lethal to people anywhere within 15 miles of the tracks, depending on the wind direction.  The U.S. Coast Guard says that a chlorine gas cloud, for example, can spread two miles in ten minutes, clearly inadequate time for thousands downwind to evacuate or shelter in place. The U.S. Naval Research Labs has testified that just one chlorine tank car’s cloud released over a major civic or sports event could kill 100,000 in a half hour.

“The proposed new DHS rules half-heartedly focus on monitoring and tracking the most dangerous rail cargoes and beefing up physical security in some transfer points,” said Millar.  “But with 142,000 miles of far-flung track, even the Association of American Railroads admits this is an inherently usecurable system.” 

Unarmored poison gas rail cars could soon face the same potential threats as the heavily-armored and video-monitored US military vehicles which are being successfully attacked every week on Iraqi highways. The most sensible immediate remedy is to send the potential poison gas weapons around the target cities whenever possible, then to begin substituting safer chemicals for industrial uses.

“The U.S. DOT proposed rule would require railroads to analyze and consider risks to target cities in their routing of the most dangerous poison gas cargoes,” said Millar.  “But chemical shippers and railroads have already considered these risks of terrorist attack after 9/11 and in every single city declined to re-route their poison gas cargoes.”

Nine major US target cities are now considering new laws (with more to come soon) re-routing the most dangerous truck and rail chemical cargoes onto non-target routes.  Lawmakers in the next Congress will soon be re-introducing national re-routing laws to protect target cities, measures that were blocked by railroad lobbyists and Republican leaders in the last session.


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