D.C. Council Passes Bill to Reroute Hazardous Materials

Last week, the City Council of Washington, DC, voted 10–1, with one abstention, to enact emergency legislation requiring rail companies to reroute hazardous cargo around the city. This legislation, “Terrorism Prevention in Hazardous Materials Transportation Emergency Act of 2005,” will make Washington the first city in the nation requiring companies to route hazardous cargo shipments away from population centers. The bill now only needs D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ signature. This vote came on the heels of a deadly chlorine leak from a hazardous-cargo train in the small town of Graniteville, SC. The Jan. 26 collision killed nine people, injured more than 250, and forced 5,400 residents from their homes. However, the consequences could have been much worse if the accident had occurred near a more populated area – such as the nation’s capital. According to a Naval Research Laboratory study, if a similar incident happened on an existing rail line near the National Mall with Fourth of July crowds, 100,000 people could be killed in 30 minutes. Washington is not the only city that needs to address the very real security and safety vulnerabilities that come with the shipping of hazardous materials. On a daily basis, trucks, trains, barges and pipelines carry some 800,000 hazardous material shipments throughout the country, with dangers often unknown to many people. Yet federal incident databases give governments and communities an incomplete picture of hazardous shipments and mishaps. Most local officials have no idea what hazardous materials move through their communities because truckers and carriers fought for and received an exemption from the country’s two most important environmental right-to-know laws. These laws, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, enable communities and local officials to find out about chemical hazards in facilities, but not about chemical hazards in motion, on wheels or tracks, that pass through neighborhoods. The Surface Transportation Board, an independent federal agency, requires carriers to report a 1 percent sample of their yearly shipments, but this information is presented in a way that is not helpful to local officials in determining the risks of hazardous chemical shipments. The Surface Transportation Board should require annual totals and worst case scenarios for the most hazardous chemicals and make those available to the public and local officials. The D.C. bill shows that cities and communities can act to protect and inform their citizens. Officials in other cities should carefully examine the D.C. bill and consider implementing similar safeguards for their region. Local officials and communities should also demand carriers make available annual totals of hazardous chemicals shipped through communities and worst case accident scenarios for those chemicals. Risks from transporting hazardous cargos can ultimately be minimized by: reducing the use of hazardous chemicals; giving the public the right to know about hazardous cargo shipments; and rerouting hazardous cargos away from population centers. It is unacceptable that three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks the federal government still has no program to minimize risks from hazardous chemicals. In fact, federal government officials have publicly opposed the district’s efforts to re-route hazardous cargos. But there is no federal program to ensure that hazardous cargo shipments do not travel through population centers; no federal program to compel users of hazardous chemicals to consider and substitute safer chemicals where practical; and no federal program to fully inform communities about hazardous cargo shipments. This leaves the matter in the hands of states and cities. Washington, DC, has taken this matter firmly in hand and is doing something about it.
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