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Rail cargo safety fight heats up

The Transportation Department has proposed regulations that require railroads to assess routes for shipping dangerous chemicals.

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Every day, hundreds of rail tank cars carry tons of chemicals that, if released, could create toxic plumes. These tank cars traverse more than 300,000 miles of railroad tracks through major cities and small towns across America.

While they represent only a small fraction of the rail cargo moved each year, homeland-security analysts have long warned that a terrorist attack on such a rail car could have catastrophic consequences.

Yet, since 9/11, Washington has not found a way to ensure the security of these moving chemical targets that satisfies homeland-security experts, environmentalists, and the chemical industry.

As a result of a congressional mandate, the Department of Transportation recently proposed a new set of regulations that would require railroads to assess the safest and most secure rail routes to ship such chemicals. The manufacturers would also be required to use better, reinforced tank cars.

But critics, some now even in the business community, say that Washington should be focusing on this question: Should these materials continue to be manufactured and shipped when safer alternatives are available?

"The fact that we have no recent history in America of a truly catastrophic chemical release leads to people to complacency," says Paul Orum, a consultant on chemical security to public-interest groups. "There are low-probability, high-consequence events, and it's hard for markets to place value on that, which is why [more effective] federal, nationwide regulation is needed."

At issue: toxic inhalants

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