Appeals Court Overturns D.C. Hazmat Ban

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled against Washington, DC (D.C.), on its law requiring that shipment of hazardous chemicals be rerouted around the nation's capital. The three-judge panel released its unanimous opinion May 3, overturning a lower court's decision to uphold the ban. The city may either appeal the panel's opinion to the full appeals court or return to the lower court for a hearing on the law. The appeals court ruled that the federal government has authority over rail security as a part of interstate commerce. The court opinion also explained that a state or city may only intercede in these matters if the federal government abandons its responsibilities. D.C. officials argued that the federal government's actions on rail security were so inadequate they constituted a failure to act. However, the court rejected this viewpoint. The ruling was a victory for CSX, a rail company that challenged the city's ban and then appealed the district court's decision. The Bush administration supported CSX's position, claiming that D.C.'s new law was unconstitutional. White House officials testified that a secret rail security plan was in place, but its details could neither be disclosed to the public, shared with city officials, nor submitted into evidence before the court. Ironically, the appeals court decision came on the same day that the Department of Homeland Security announced a $1 million grant to D.C. to study rail security risks and the possibility of rerouting. Should the case go back to the district court, a trial will be expensive. But it will go before the judge who believed the federal government had abandoned its responsibilities to develop a plan for rail security -- a position that is more friendly to D.C. than to CSX. Several other cities are monitoring the case as they consider passing similar laws.
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