WASHINGTON - Tankers filled with deadly chemicals are likely to continue to roll through Baltimore and other major cities despite new federal rules initially aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic accidents or terrorist threats by sending much of the cargo through less-populated areas.
Beginning next month, railroads must analyze alternative routes for shipping chlorine and other hazardous materials, and pick the path they find to be the safest and most secure, as well as practical and "commercially viable."
But meaningful security improvements are unlikely, say safety experts and local officials. The analysis will be performed by the railroads themselves, using a model they are developing in agreement with the Bush administration and endorsed by Congress. There will be virtually no outside review, and limited input from state and local leaders or emergency responders. And any decisions on rerouting will be left to the railroads.
Railroads have already opposed mandatory rerouting of chemical tankers around Baltimore and other places. Critics note that rail companies will be reluctant to hand their cargo to a competitor with a nearby track in order to keep chemicals out of cities.
"It would be very difficult to say that we're safer" because of the new rules, said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who voted for the security package.
"It's very easy to criticize this and say it's not enough," Cummings said. "This is going to be a process, and may take a number of years. Is it a giant step? No. But it's a medium-sized step."
Federal transportation and railroad officials say it makes sense for the railroads to do the route analysis, since they are most knowledgeable about those issues. Track selection is just one component of hazardous material safety, they say.
"I call the critics nonsensical if they think this isn't a strong step," Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph H. Boardman told reporters recently.
About 1.8 million carloads of hazardous material move along the nation's rails each year, according to the American Association of Railroads. Of that, 100,000 loads are especially dangerous gases or liquids known as "toxic inhalation hazards," most commonly chlorine and anhydrous ammonia. The chemicals are in effect the same type of poison gas used on the front line during World War I, and are now used to treat wastewater and produce fertilizer.
The new requirements are rooted in efforts by Baltimore, Washington and other cities to ban railroads from hauling toxic substances through heavily populated areas. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks revived scrutiny of such transportation-related vulnerabilities.
A cloud of chlorine released deliberately or by accident could kill tens of thousands, depending on its location and the number of people in its path, government and military studies show.
In Baltimore, much of the cargo passes on tracks owned by CSX Transportation, which would not disclose the number and type of shipments.
But Baltimore has first-hand experience with the dangers. In July 2001, just months before Sept. 11, a derailment in the 1.7-mile-long CSX-owned Howard Street tunnel sparked a conflagration of dangerous chemicals that shut down the city center.
Rail lines pass within feet of the stadiums where the Ravens and Orioles play. Because of the danger, shipments were suspended last year when President Bush attended the Army-Navy football game at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I just happen to think that certain hazardous materials should not come through a major city," said former Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N.Harris Sr., who sponsored a local rerouting proposal that was never adopted.
CSX and the railroad association said they would not comment on the potential for rerouting until the analyses were completed.
Encouraged by the rail industry, which feared a nationwide patchwork of such local rules, the federal government moved to create a framework of protections from hazardous chemical shipments. The rules were contained in a homeland security package approved by Congress last year, implementing many recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
But the authority given to rail industry groups by the Bush administration - and a complicit Congress - has weakened the effort, critics charge.
Selecting the safest path for chemicals "is a major public-policy decision affecting the health and safety of millions of people," said Fred Millar, a longtime chemical transportation consultant for Friends of the Earth, major cities and unions. "In this case, you are letting just the railroad make decisions, with no other body being involved, and in total secrecy."