- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The D.C. Council has been demagoguing on the subject of securing chemical transport through Washington for months. Now, the Department of Justice is telling it to stop, and not a moment too soon.

The Justice Department announced Friday it will sue to overturn a D.C. law that bans the shipment of hazardous chemicals within two miles of the U.S. Capitol. The law, the D.C. Terrorism Prevention and Safety in Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, is a study in poor legislation. Not only does it actually make chemical transport less secure, it also violates the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause by usurping a federal prerogative.

The D.C. law significantly extends the time chemicals are on tracks by requiring their extensive re-routing, so in that regard it actually decreases chemical security, as the Justice Department brief points out. The more time toxic chemicals spend on tracks, the greater the vulnerability to terrorism.

The re-routing is so extensive, in fact, that chemicals may end up travelling by highway instead of rail, which raises the question: Where are dangerous chemicals more vulnerable, on rail cars or on trucks on the open road? A train full of toxic substances is harder to hijack and blow up or ram into buildings than a truck, but D.C. lawmakers apparently believe otherwise. It hardly promotes security to send trucks full of hazardous chemicals to the Beltway and other roads where a terrorist could hijack them and drive them into the heart of the city; quite the contrary. CSX, the eastern United States’ largest rail company, already voluntarily re-routed its cargo away from sensitive points downtown following the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, and has been cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security to boost defenses. But this law threatens to push chemicals onto the open road, inexplicably positing that they’ll be safer there than on railways.

The law has the additional disadvantage of being unconstitutional. Specifically, it violates the Commerce Clause, as we pointed out back in November. Congress, not state or local government, is charged with regulating interstate commerce, and for good reason: Chaos would result if individual states could tell carriers of chemicals, or cars or computers for that matter, where and how to ship their cargo and what not to ship. This law effectively tells other states and municipalities that they, too, can fob harmful chemicals onto their neighbors if they like. That doesn’t help anyone.

When U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan hears the case next month, we trust he will see the logic in the federal government’s argument and will rule against the District. We’re all in favor of efforts to boost the security of dangerous chemicals in transport through Washington. But this law doesn’t accomplish that.

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