Get on the Right Track

P.J. Crowley assesses new rail security regulation from the Department of Homeland Security.

Transformation is one of the Bush administration’s buzz words. They say that we are transforming our military and our diplomacy. But when it comes to homeland security, the Bush administration, unfortunately, continues to defend the status quo and entrenched corporate interests, leaving critical risks unaddressed.

The latest example came today when the Department of Homeland Security announced new freight rail hazardous material (or HAZMAT) security rules. The rules themselves are welcome. They call for improved physical security at rail yards; better communication, coordination, and security awareness during movements; and fewer delays en route that leave HAZMAT cars open to attack or sabotage.

Yet the fact is that the federal government, local governments, and the rail industry cannot make the freight rail system secure enough to justify moving a HAZMAT car filled with chlorine or ammonia gas through a major city center. The rail lines in a target city like Washington, D.C., for example, go right through the heart of the city and directly past the U.S. Capitol.

This creates a dangerous and needless terrorist target of opportunity. If graffiti artists can draw on rail cars, terrorists can blow them up. Today’s actions by themselves are insufficient to change this reality.

The Department of Homeland Security cannot continue to talk about a risk-based strategy while letting its actions consistently fall short. The real solutions have to involve significant reductions in the amount of acutely hazardous materials on our freight rail lines—particularly lines that flow through major urban centers. Only where alternatives do not exist are physical security improvements the final answer.

Here is what the DHS should do if it is serious about improving our safety:

The Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security should first undertake a national study of rail lines and evaluate how and where specific acutely hazardous material—particularly toxic-by-inhalation gases like chlorine and ammonia—can be routed away from major cities.

A number of communities are exploring such an approach now, including the District of Columbia—a step that DHS and CSX opposed in court two years ago. A national approach is certainly better than ad hoc local decisions. The rail industry opposes rerouting because it threatens the regional monopolies of companies like CSX and Norfolk Southern. But it is time to put the national security interest ahead of such parochial interests.

Next, Congress should revisit and strengthen the chemical security standards passed in September. Congress granted DHS interim authority to regulate security at chemical plants for a three-year period, but it did not force chemical manufacturers, repackagers, or users to factor the transportation of hazardous material into required security plans. This is like securing the barn, but ignoring the surrounding pasture in which the livestock graze. It also exempts drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities—major users of chlorine gas for disinfection—from regulation.

The Center for American Progress testified earlier this year to House and Senate committees that more needs to be done to address the manufacture, repackaging, transportation, physical security, storage, and use of acutely hazardous material. A 2005 Center study demonstrated the feasibility of a national re-routing plan. And an analysis from the Center this year also showed how cost effective and more secure alternatives for hazardous substances and processes, particularly chlorine, already exist.

The new rail rule is a regulatory band-aid for a serious security vulnerability that requires major surgery. Much more should be done and urgently.

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