- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

That trains continue to be a tempting target for terrorists was emphasized last week in the form of a bulletin from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to law enforcement agencies warning of a “continued terrorist interest in conducting attacks on U.S. subways and railways.” The danger is compounded in the District, which has both an easily accessible Metrorail system and rail lines (owned by CSX Transportation).

Only .5 percent of the 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials shipped annually around the country actually pass through the District. In response to that threat, the D.C. Council is considering the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, which would ban the transport of hazardous materials through the District when other practical routes exist. While well intentioned, the bill faces significant constitutional questions and adds little to safety.

If passed, the legislation would set a terrible precedent, allowing other communities to effectively bar passage of whatever materials they deem unsafe. For instance, high-level radioactive waste headed to the planned repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada would have a difficult time making it across any given county, much less the country.

As a bar to such cross-state transportation, the act is likely to run afoul of several federal statues, not the least of which is the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause. It may also violate the Federal Railroad Safety Act and the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.

Even if the legislation were to survive the inevitable legal battle, it would have nearly a negligible effect on the safety of the District.

All parties in this debate agree that shipments can be delayed or rerouted at the request of local officials, as was the case during the president’s State of the Union address. But rerouting shipments will not solve the problem; it merely moves the problem into someone else’s backyard.

A major supporter of the bill — Greenpeace (Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club are also supporting it) — also is backing the misguided chemical security bill sponsored by Sen. Jon Corzine. Before then, the group campaigned for a complete ban on the use of chlorine.

Greenpeace says that if passed, the legislation “will serve as a model for the rest of the country.” In a sense it will — as an unconstitutional approach to a serious threat. The cooperative strategy currently being pursued by public- and private-sector officials toward better rail security seems best in this case.

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