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Cities move to defend against railroad attacks

At least five may ban tanker cars with hazardous chemicals. Industry and federal officials disapprove.

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Boston officials envision keeping rail cars carrying hazardous chemicals at least 10 miles away unless the city is their destination.

A plan in Chicago would prohibit such tanker cars in its downtown Loop. In Cleveland, city officials are considering banning them near Lake Erie, water treatment plants, and crowded neighborhoods.

Transport of these chemicals presents one of the knottiest public policy problems in the effort to protect the nation's cities from terrorist attack. Federal law requires railroads to carry such chemicals, which are used in manufacturing, water-purification systems, and wastewater-treatment plants. But with no federal regulations for securing the transport of these chemicals, The District of Columbia has enacted rules of its own and at least five other cities are considering them. These moves have drawn a sharp rebuke from industry and federal officials, who say such piecemeal efforts are misguided. Since 9/11, they point out, railroads have fortified rail yards and worked with the chemical industry to conceal where and when these tanker cars pass near or through cities.

The threat looms large. Government studies suggest that the explosion of one tanker car carrying, say, chlorine would cause up to 100,000 deaths in a densely populated area.

So Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Chicago have proposed ordinances requiring that such deadly chemicals be rerouted around them unless they're destined for the cities themselves. The fact that the rail industry, with federal support, has sued the District of Columbia over its law has not deterred them.

"The federal government says, 'We preempt the field,' but their preemption is abdication because they're not doing anything. They're letting the railroads determine the routes," says Stuart Greenberg of the Cuyahoga County Emergency Planning Committee in Cleveland. "Either we need to allow local jurisdictions to exercise their obligation to protect the public, or we need a comprehensive federal routing system designed by a neutral party."

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