DC passes hazmat ban, but railroad challenges new rules

| 2/17/2005

Washington, DC, Mayor Anthony Williams has signed a bill that will prohibit the shipment of certain hazardous materials within two miles of the U.S. Capitol building.

The measure – called an emergency bill – received the mayor’s blessing Tuesday, Feb. 15. DC Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, the bill’s chief sponsor, said that measure would put the ban in place for 90 days from the date it was signed.

A vote on a so-called “temporary bill,” which would extend the ban for 225 days, should take place by March 1, Patterson said, and it is expected to pass.

Because of the unique way that the District of Columbia works, the bill must be passed three ways. In addition to the emergency and temporary bills, a third, “permanent” measure must also be passed. That bill is in the city’s Public Works and Environment Committee, where the chair of the committee, Council member Carol Schwartz, is opposed to the measure.

“It’s just a matter of trying to work with her to get the permanent bill to move forward,” Patterson said.

However, the proposed hazmat shipment ban has other hurdles to cross as well. CSX Railway, which operates tracks near the Capitol, has challenged the proposal on several fronts.

On Feb. 7, the railroad filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board, claiming the city’s ordinance was pre-empted by a clause of the ICC Termination Act of 1995. In the filing, the railroad claimed that 10,500 rail cars could be affected each year.

However, DC officials said in a filing with the same board that the effect on the city would be much more significant.

“A terrorist attack on a truck or a train containing hazardous materials in the area demarcated in the challenged legislation would be catastrophic,” DC officials wrote in their filing. “The Council of the District of Columbia, in two public hearings, heard testimony that such an attack could cause tens of thousands of deaths and economic impacts of upwards of $5 billion.”

The railroad has also filed a suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking judges to declare the ordinance “invalid,” saying it contradicts the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and violates several federal laws regarding hazmat shipments.

Patterson’s measure, titled the “Terrorism Prevention in Hazardous Materials Transportation Emergency Act of 2005,” would not ban all hazardous materials, said Penny Pagano, chief of staff for Patterson. Instead, it is intended to keep large shipments of substances she described as “ultrahazardous,” such as chlorine and propane, away from the center of the nation’s capital.

The proposal would require carriers shipping specific hazardous materials to receive a permit from the DC Department of Transportation before the cargo can be moved through the 2.2-mile-wide zone around the Capitol building, according to a news release from the city. Shipments could also receive permission to move through the zone in certain emergencies.

While trucks would be included under the proposed prohibition, the main target of the bill was not trucks, but rather rail shipments, some of which come within blocks of the Capitol.

The text of the ordinance specifically mentions that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security “stated that the department had not used and would not use its authority to mandate re-routing of hazardous rail cargo.”

The list of materials covered under the proposed ordinance is limited, Pagano told Land Line. It does not include flammable liquids such as gasoline or diesel fuel, for example. It does include:

  • Class 1, Division 1.1 and 1.2, explosives in a quantity greater than 500 kilograms;
  • Class 2, Division 2.1 flammable gases in a quantity greater than 10,000 liters;
  • Class 2, Division 2.3 poisonous gases in a quantity greater than 500 liters; and
  • Class 6 Division 6.1 poisonous materials in amounts over 1,000 kilograms.

“They narrowed this to really prohibit large shipments of certain extremely hazardous materials,” Pagano said. 

– By Mark H. Reddig, associate editor