Final U.S. Chemical Tanker Rail Route Rule Issued

A finalized regulation allows rail firms to send tankers carrying chlorine or other dangerous chemical substances to pass through large U.S. urban areas, the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 14).

"Midnight rule changes" are standard operating procedure as one presidential administration prepares to make way for its successor, according to the newspaper. Such moves are often overturned, but the process is not quick.

The Bush administration rule largely gives railroads the authority to decide the best route for transporting materials that observers fear could be used as weapons of terrorism. The companies must use the "safest and most secure" routes based upon 27 criteria that include how close the shipments would come to areas with high populations or significant environmental sensitivity.

While critics argue that the rule strips local governments of any say on routing, the Federal Railroad Administration said that such input would be welcomed and considered.

“There is an opportunity for local communities to provide their views on potential routings,” said agency spokesman Warren Flatau. “And if they believe the railroad’s decision did not take their concerns into account, they could certainly come to us and ask us to audit the railroad’s decision.”

Local governments will continue to be heard on routing matters, said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.

“The railroads are already working with local governments and (hazardous material) people and the chemical companies and will continue to do so,” he said.

“It is the railroads who understand best what is required to transport hazardous materials, and it is the railroads who understand best the routes and their technical limitations,” White added. “If you started giving local authorities the ability to mandate rerouting you could end up with a situation where it would be impossible to move the stuff at all. Why? Because every local community would then do that.”

Critics remained unconvinced, the Monitor reported.

“These are going to be seemingly unilateral routing decisions made by the railroads without the ability of state and local policy-makers or other knowledgeable experts to have any input whatsoever as to how these trains are routed through our jurisdictions,” says Susan Parnas Frederick, federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

State and local officials will never know if their input made an impact, as the federal government designates routing decisions as "security sensitive" and keeps them secret.

“All of the documentation will be secret, and the results will be secret,” says environmental consultant Fred Millar. “It’s conceivable that not a single elected official in this country will be told the results of this, because the only people that need to be told are people with a ‘need to know.’ Challenging any decision is just going to be a can of worms" (Alexandra Marks, Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 15).

December 16, 2008
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A finalized regulation allows rail firms to send tankers carrying chlorine or other dangerous chemical substances to pass through large U.S. urban areas, the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 14).