Dangerous Cargo Proposal Contains Hidden Perils

BACKGROUND: Saying “the Bush Administration has not acted aggressively”1 to protect Americans from terrorists, Friends of ther Earth and Greenpeace have convinced elected officials on the city council of the District of Columbia to introduce legislation to prohibit the shipment of hazardous materials by truck or rail through Washington, DC. The ban would force freight trains carrying hazardous materials to be rerouted to the Norfolk Southern rail line about 50 miles west of the District. Trucks transporting such chemicals would have to use the Washington Beltway, a highlly-travelled, frequently-congested highway circling the nation’s capital.2

TEN SECOND RESPONSE: The bill’s intent is noble. However, the “Terrorism Prevention and Safety in Hazardous Materials Act of 2004” would actually toughen the already arduous task of protecting Washington from terrorists.

THIRTY SECOND RESPONSE: Rerouting freight trains with tank cars away from Washington is a bad idea. It would force them to travel a greater distance and increase the statistical possibility of an chemical release. The risk would simply shift from one community to another.

DISCUSSION: Writing in a National Policy Analysis paper for the National Center for Public Policy Research, senior fellow Bonner Cohen writes:

The bill’s intent is a noble one: to help safeguard the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the monuments on the Mall, and the thousands of people who congregate there from a chemical attack on the area’s transportation system. However, the “Terrorism Prevention and Safety in Hazardous Materials Act of 2004” will actually make more difficult the already arduous task of protecting Washington from the depredations of terrorists.

For one thing, the bill runs counter to the federal Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, which was created to prevent state and local governments from interfering with the legal transport of hazardous materials through their jurisdictions. In enacting the federal statute, Congress recognized the vital role hazardous materials and the products and technologies developed there from play in commerce, public health, and national security.

Moreover, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a massive effort is already underway to secure the District of Columbia against the threat of terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration, capitol police, park police, local fire and rescue personnel, and the private sector have developed vulnerability assessments and security plans that apply to fixed installations and all means of transportation. Some of these measures are obvious such as restricted access to certain areas; others are invisible to the naked eye. Together, they have to date kept the District safe from terrorist attacks.

The purpose of transporting hazardous materials is to get them into the hands of end-users who transform them into useful products that do such things as purify drinking water, treat diseases, protect crops, and provide critical assets in the war on terrorism.

Cipro ®, for example, is a chlorine-based antibiotic used to treat people exposed to anthrax. No one knows when or if there will be another anthrax incident in Washington or elsewhere. What we do know, however, is that adequate supplies of Cipro ® need to be on hand just in case. And you can’t send Cipro ® over the Internet.

This is why rerouting freight trains with tank cars away from Washington is a bad idea. It would force them to travel a greater distance and actually increase the statistical possibility of an accidental chemical release. The risk of a chemical release, whether by accident or as a result of a terrorist attack, would simply shift from one community to another. Furthermore, the circuitous route will only delay the arrival of the materials to their final destination. These are just the kind of self-defeating disruptions of our daily lives that terrorist organizations want us to carry out.

What’s more, the ban would set a dangerous precedent that other jurisdictions throughout the United States might be tempted to follow. The resulting rerouting of freight trains across America’s 30,000-mile network of railroad track would lead to widespread economic dislocations and increased security problems, both of which would only further the interests of terrorists.

It is revealing that the bill pending before the D.C. Council is supported by — of all organizations — Greenpeace. This is the same Greenpeace that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, launched a campaign providing detailed maps and information about the storage of chemicals at specific facilities around the country. Greenpeace and other irresponsible environmental groups went so far as to post this information on the Internet despite concerns from law-enforcement officials and emergency-response personnel that they were, in effect, providing a “road map” for terrorists in selecting targets.

Homeland security is a deadly serious business. While careful attention should be paid to unique situations prevailing at different locations around the nation, we should avoid initiatives that are hatched independent of cooperative plans already in place and that ultimately undermine our ability to protect Americans from terrorists.3


“Terrorist Threat: Dangerous Cargo Passes Through Washington D.C., Each Day!,” Website Alert, Friends of ther Earth, February 2004, available online at http://www.foe.org/camps/reg/dcen/cargo/

Bonner Cohen, “For Security’s Sake, D.C. Government Should Ignore Greenpeace on Homeland Security,” National Policy Analysis #503, National Center for Public Policy Research, February 2004, available online at https://nationalcenter.org/NPA503.html

by Amy Ridenour

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.