Sets Hazardous-Material Rules
Source: Christopher Conkey - Wall Street Journal
Published: April 17th 2008
PUEBLO, Colo. -- The Bush administration adopted new rules dictating when and
how railroads can transport hazardous materials through cities, in a move that
could override state and local restrictions on such shipments.
The regulations, which were announced by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters at a rail-technology and -training center here, require carriers to consider 27 criteria such as volume, density and track quality before selecting a route "posing the least overall safety and security risk."
The routing requirements cap a period of federal regulatory activity on rail safety. The government has a continuing effort to improve the puncture resistance of tank cars and adopted separate rules earlier this year to curb common human errors leading to accidents.
Many of these efforts come in response to deadly accidents, including a 2005 train crash in Graniteville, S.C., that released a poisonous cloud of chlorine, killing nine and injuring more than 500 people.
Neither Ms. Peters nor her top deputy on the matter, Federal Railroad Administration head Joseph Boardman, could say to what extent railroads will reroute dangerous shipments away from cities like New York and Washington, which are considered major terrorist targets. Many of those decisions will be made in consultation with local officials, they said.
Some environmental and consumer-protection organizations said the requirements will leave railroads free to route hazardous shipments however they see fit. Brent Blackwelder, president of the environmental-advocacy organization Friends of the Earth, called the rules an "abdication of government responsibility."
Gerie Voss, regulatory counsel at the American Association for Justice, a group representing trial lawyers, including some who have represented victims in hazardous-material accidents, predicted Congress will object to the pre-emption of local ordinances like one in Washington, which has already been challenged in court.
Mr. Boardman of the FRA dismissed these criticisms as "cavalier" and "nonsensical," saying railroads will work with local officials and be held accountable if they don't.
Industry groups generally supported the move, but others were concerned that the federal rules will pre-empt state and local ordinances. The regulations may also affect future House-Senate negotiations over rail-safety legislation.
Marty Durbin, managing director of federal affairs at the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing more than 100 manufacturers, said the prospect of various, conflicting local laws would spell chaos for shippers and carriers.
"That would screw up the entire transportation system," Mr. Durbin said. "We've always said this has to be done at a federal level."
Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House transportation committee, issued qualified praise for the new routing requirements. "If implemented as Congress intended, this rule will help ensure greater safety for the routing of these shipments in the future," he said in a statement.
The new routing requirements will take effect in June. The FRA's tank-car rule making, which is at an earlier stage, would require trains carrying hazardous materials to go no faster than 50 miles an hour -- and 30 miles an hour or less for trains with out-of-date cars in areas without signals.