Hearing on plan to ban shipping of hazmats through city is canceled

Harris says industry is behind delay

Reisinger notes procedural concerns

September 12, 2005|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN STAFF

A controversial City Council proposal that would prohibit shipping hazardous materials through Baltimore was stripped off the city's calendar days before this week's scheduled hearing, an unusual move that prompted an outcry from supporters.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who introduced the measure in February, blamed the decision to cancel Wednesday's hearing on last-minute lobbying by transportation and chemical companies opposed to regulation. Others faulted a procedural mix-up.

The proposal, which could still be considered by the council this year, comes four years after a CSX freight train carrying hazardous chemicals partially derailed in the Howard Street Tunnel, igniting a fire that tied up downtown for days.

"It's clear to me that there's a strong lobbying effort against this bill, and I'm convinced that's part of the reason for the postponement," said Harris, who represents the 4th District. "Something smells."

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, chairman of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, which was to hear the measure, said recent lobbying did not affect his decision.

He said the delay is needed because of an oversight that inadvertently cut the city Planning Department out of the review process.

City departments typically have 30 days to evaluate a proposed ordinance. In this case, eight agencies - including the Department of Public Works and the Fire Department - had that opportunity, but the Planning Department did not, Reisinger said.

"It's not being postponed because of industry. It's being delayed because of the process," Reisinger said. "This has nothing to do with businesses."

If the proposal does get a hearing, it's bound to be a contentious one. CSX Transportation sued Washington officials over a similar ban imposed there - the first of its kind in the country. The U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the ban in May as unconstitutional.

Kathy Patterson, the Democratic member of the D.C. Council who drafted the district's ban, said she is still fighting for more control of industry. She compared chemical transport to inferior levees in New Orleans, arguing the federal government should step in now before it's too late.

"We have a risk that's been identified: hazardous materials being shipped through major urban areas," she said. "That's a huge risk that the federal government needs to address."

Similar proposals to restrict the transport of hazardous materials have been introduced in Chicago, Cleveland and Boston.

Fred Millar, a consultant to several environmental groups, said the potential risk comes not only from accidents, but also from terrorism.

"What's going on now is insanely reckless," Millar said. "If you can just get people's attention for a few minutes and they take a look at this they say, `Yeah, this is crazy.'"

CSX spokeswoman Misty Skipper said the company has not lobbied against the Baltimore proposal.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the administration did not pressure council members on the issue. Guillory said the administration is keeping an eye on the continuing Washington court battle with CSX.

Reisinger, meanwhile, said he will schedule a new hearing once Planning Department officials review the proposal - a process that will trigger its own, separate public hearing. Reisinger could not say when that meeting will be scheduled.

Harris vowed to go forward with his own, informal hearing Wednesday, even if it's not sanctioned by the council.

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