Chertoff Lambasted for Boast to Have Reduced Railcar Risk

Chertoff Lambasted for Boast to Have Reduced Railcar Risk

For more information contact:
Fred Millar, 703-979-9191
Nick Berning, 202-222-0748

Criticism Comes as DHS Celebrates Its Fifth Anniversary

WASHINGTON, D.C.—An environmental group that has been a leader in the fight to reroute “toxic trains” out of the nation’s most densely populated urban areas today lambasted Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s claim that one of his agency’s chief accomplishments has been a dramatic reduction in risk from railcar shipments of poison gases.

“Friends of the Earth is astonished and appalled that Secretary Chertoff claims to have dramatically reduced the risk from railcar shipments of poison gases,” Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder said. “This alleged centerpiece accomplishment is a fraud. In fact, Chertoff’s agency has worked to derail train safety, stubbornly fighting the rerouting of dangerous trains and working to weaken the rerouting law Congress enacted in July 2007.”

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security’s creation. In recent weeks Secretary Chertoff has cited improved rail security as one of the department’s key accomplishments. For example, at a February 27 Christian Science Monitor Breakfast Chertoff said, “We have dramatically reduced the vulnerability through the rail transport of chemicals by reducing the dwell time; reducing the time in which chemicals in cars are sitting unattended.”

Friends of the Earth consultant Fred Millar disputed the assertion by Secretary Chertoff that the most substantial threat comes from trains that are sitting still.

“Toxic trains move on routes over a thousand miles long and are often switched in urban rail yards several times before they reach their destinations,” Millar said. “One chlorine gas tank car released near a crowded urban event like July 4 fireworks on the D.C. Mall or a full sports stadium could kill or injure 100,000 people in a half hour. Only if Secretary Chertoff thinks terrorists are terminally stupid and slow on the draw could he maintain that they cannot hit 90-ton, unarmored, slow-moving railcars, clearly marked and so astonishingly accessible that they are often tagged with graffiti.”

“This isn’t just about terrorism,” Blackwelder added. “There’s also the threat of an accidental derailment or crash. Just this last November a train carrying coal derailed on a bridge over the Anacostia river, miles from the U.S. Capitol. Imagine if that train had been carrying chlorine gas.”

The Bush administration’s record on rail security leaves much to be desired. In 2006 the administration asked for “voluntary” security measures from rail companies. By comparison, other industries including airlines and ports were subject to serious and sometimes onerous and costly regulations. Prompted by Bush administration inaction, Congress enacted a new, albeit flawed, rail hazmat rerouting law in 2007. On August 3 President Bush signed H.R. 1, the omnibus “9/11 Commission Act,” including Section 1551 which called for a rerouting of the most dangerous rail chemical cargoes. Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation is now writing regulations which will give railroads 27 different ways to NOT reroute, and the railroads will get to select their routes in secrecy, without inputs from state and local governments.

Secretary Chertoff is expected to address the Homeland Security Department during an anniversary celebration at 12:30 p.m. today.

Friends of the Earth consultant Fred Millar has worked with legislators in Washington, D.C., ten other target cities, and two states to introduce laws to force a protective rerouting of through shipments of the most dangerous rail car chemicals.