WASHINGTON – When the Washington, D.C., Council voted to ban rail shipments of hazardous material around the U.S. Capitol, it did not say where those hundreds of tons of potentially deadly materials should go instead.
Neither would CSX Corp., which owns the rail lines running through Washington, citing security concerns.
But Western Maryland seems to be the likeliest route, and emergency officials there said they are looking for whatever information they can get so they can prepare themselves.
“We do have the potential to be affected by that decision,” by the D.C. Council, said Joe Kroboth, chief of emergency services for Washington County. He said he expected those shipments to come through the county and into Hagerstown, a significant railroad junction.
Cumberland, like Hagerstown, is a rail junction. But Allegany County Emergency Planner Dave Powell said that while he was aware of the council vote, he had not been told whether the rerouted traffic would come through his county.
“We’ve received no information,” from the railroads or from Homeland Security offices, Powell said.
Western Maryland may already be getting those shipments: D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz voted against the measure, which she said is unnecessary because CSX had been voluntarily rerouting hazardous shipments out of the District for more than a year.
CSX would not comment. The Transportation Safety Administration, in a statement Friday, called CSX a model for railroad security and said that “together we’ve achieved more effective risk management than the council’s measure even contemplates.”
The measure, passed Tuesday, mandates that certain explosives and flammable or poisonous gases cannot be transported within 2.2 miles of the Capitol, which effectively diverts that traffic completely around Washington.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is expected to sign the emergency law, which will be in force for 90 days, during which the council may vote to make it permanent.
The measure is widely expected to face stiff legal challenges on a number of different legal grounds, including the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution.
Against that backdrop, many Maryland officials were taking a wait-and-see position last week.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, said in a prepared statement that he was looking forward “to working closely with local and state officials to gather information about and respond to any impact in Western Maryland from the implementation of the new D.C. law.”
James Pettit, a spokesman for the Maryland Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, said it was unclear whether the District’s decision would affect Maryland.
He said that the issue will require significant analysis and that more information is needed. Pettit said any action by the state would have to involve coordination with the federal government, which regulates interstate trade, and the rail companies.
The environmental group Greenpeace, which testified in support of the D.C. legislation, estimated that three to five rail shipments of hazardous materials would be routed around the city each day under the bill. Those shipments include chlorine, which is shipped in 90-ton tanker cars, a Greenpeace official noted.
But Rick Hind, the legislative director for Greenpeace’s toxics campaign, could not say where those tanker cars would go, only that, logically, they could be diverted through Maryland.
If the law survives and the tankers do start coming through the state, Kroboth said more study would be needed to determine if the region’s existing hazardous materials teams could handle any potential threats posed by those shipments.
But he also expressed skepticism about how much information would be forthcoming from the railroad, which he said does not generally inform Washington County about hazardous rail traffic anyway.
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