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Biden Bill Safeguards Cities From Chemical Attacks

Location: Washington, DC

Biden Bill Safeguards Cities From Chemical Attacks

In an effort to safeguard our nation's cities and protect hundreds of thousands of Americans from deadly chemical attacks, U.S. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) today introduced The Hazardous Materials Vulnerability Reduction Act of 2005. This legislation will require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop a comprehensive, risk-based strategy for handling the transport of the most dangerous chemicals by rail. It also calls on DHS to determine which chemicals should be classified as "extremely hazardous materials" and to work with state and local officials to determine which areas are "high threat corridors."

"The Department of Homeland Security is still not working properly. They are ignoring a grave threat to our homeland security," said Biden. "The danger of chemicals being transported through our nation's high threat cities is staggering. The 90-ton rail cars used to carry dangerous chemicals have been compared to rolling weapons of mass destruction. A successful attack on these targets could produce casualty rates comparable to a nuclear or biological attack."

The Naval Research Laboratory released a study that estimated that a successful terrorist attack on a 90-ton rail tanker carrying chlorine could injure or kill up to 100,000 people in less than thirty minutes. The accidental release of hazardous chemicals in rural South Carolina, which killed 9 and injured hundreds, demonstrates the dangers of these chemicals, and the impact would be magnified if such a release took place in an urban area.

"The financial security of big rail companies should not come before the safety and security of the American people," said Biden. "The current state of our rail security system is worse than an accident waiting to happen, it is an open invitation to terrorists. We need to close these loopholes before terrorists exploit them. I don't want to read a blue ribbon commission report telling us steps we could have taken. Common sense tells us we must act now."

Biden's bill will require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a comprehensive, risk-based strategy to protect our nation's cities from the threat of hazardous materials shipped over the rails, including:

(1) re-route "extremely hazardous materials" around "high-threat corridors"; (2) develop protocols to provide notice to local officials of the types and quantities of chemicals being shipped; (3) research and develop initiatives to study security measures related to the rails and the tankers, such as physical barriers, force protection levels, passive containment technologies, and the utility of using smaller, safer tankers; and (4) authorize $100 million to provide training for emergency services personnel and rail workers who handle hazardous materials.

"The FBI and CIA have discovered intelligence that rail shipments of chemical tankers have been targeted by terrorists," said Biden. "Undoubtedly, terrorists would target these shipments in high-threat areas where the most damage could be caused. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration has done little to respond to this threat."

Senator Biden is not the only one calling on the Bush Administration to take immediate action on this issue. Earlier this year Richard Falkenrath, former Deputy Homeland Security Adviser, warned Congress: "The Administration has not exercised its authority to enhance the security of toxic chemicals in transit in any significant way since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There has, as a result, been no meaningful improvement in the security of toxic-by-inhalation chemicals moving through our population centers. The Administration should act immediately to mandate a significant, nationwide reduction in the vulnerability of toxic chemicals in transit nationwide."

"Re-routing is the best way to eliminate the threat of a terrorist attack on chemical cars, and because we are only requiring re-routing for less than 5% of all hazardous materials shipped by rail, it doesn't seem to me to be too much to ask," said Biden. "The rail industry will argue that re-routing increases risk because it may increase the time that the chemicals are in-transit. I can accept this argument if we are talking about accidents; however, in a high threat city, such as Washington, DC, we are talking about intentional attacks."

"I should point out that I do not propose to re-route all dangerous materials. Rather, I propose to limit the impact of this legislation to those chemicals that represent an acute health threat or have a high likelihood of causing injuries or casualties if there were a successful terrorist attack. This would include substances that are toxic by inhalation, highly explosive, or highly flammable. The bottom line is that we are talking about less than 5% of all the hazardous materials shipped."

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals recently heard oral argument in a dispute between CSX Transportation and the District of Columbia. CSX is challenging an ordinance passed by the District that prohibits extremely hazardous materials from a designated zone within city limits. CSXT is appealing a ruling by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who upheld the law passed by the DC Council holding that the federal government had not done enough to demonstrate that it has preempted state action.

"It is my hope that by passing this legislation, we can avoid other cities from taking this type of unilateral action and avoid further court battles. We shouldn't be arguing in court about our homeland security needs; we need a unified, national policy related to the transport of these dangerous chemicals. The Bush Administration has shown that it is unwilling or unable to develop a sensible policy on its own, and this legislation will require them to do so," concluded Biden.

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