Track Attack: District spars with feds over railroad dangers

Trains full of hazardous materials run through the heart of the city nearly every day. According to a Naval Research Laboratory study, if terrorists attacked a tanker full of chlorine when it passes near the Capitol, say, a poisonous cloud could kill 100,000 people in half an hour (reporters mention this scenario in every story on the subject - if it ever happens, we'll have the biggest "I-told-you-so" of all time).

Trains full of hazardous materials run through the heart of the city nearly every day. According to a Naval Research Laboratory study, if terrorists attacked a tanker full of chlorine when it passes near the Capitol, say, a poisonous cloud could kill 100,000 people in half an hour (reporters mention this scenario in every story on the subject - if it ever happens, we'll have the biggest "I-told-you-so" of all time).

So last year D.C. Councilmember Kathy Patterson introduced legislation to ban the transport of certain hazardous materials through the city. But CSX Corp., which runs the chlorine trains, fought back hard with a lawsuit arguing that the legislation violates federal jurisdiction over interstate commerce and railroad safety. District lawyers disagree.

On Oct. 27, District lawyers filed a motion for summary judgment, looking to end the dispute in the District's favor. CSX has 30 days to respond.

Meanwhile, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a federal agency that makes plans for the D.C. cityscape, is working up an alternative. On Nov. 2, NCPC Officer David Zaidain presented to the commission an update on his project, the "Rail Road Alternative Feasibility Study." The goal is to find a site for a tunnel, or for other routes outside the city, for CSX to send its hazardous cargo.

The million-dollar study, funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the District Department of Transportation, will give its final presentation on the best possible options in February. After that, it will be years before anything really happens.

"This would be a huge project," says Zaidain. "We're providing a long-term solution." Zaidain also says getting rid of the tracks cutting through the city would help reunify neighborhoods - a positive by-product of preventing the chlorine cloud.

The short-term solution, called the "National Capital Region Rail Pilot Project," will be provided by DHS itself: cameras and motion sensors on key sections of the track, as per a brief presentation by the NCPC's Eugene Keller. The Commission voted unanimously to approve the plans. When it's a 14-mile-wide cloud of poison gas you're trying to avoid, though, the security benefit of a few cameras is entirely lost on this reporter - especially with a $10 million price tag.

And I'm not the only one: A Sept. 13, 2005 letter (though just-approved, the "Pilot Project" isn't new) from Patterson says "the security plan fails to address to basic risk to life and safety posed by the shipment of toxic-by-inhalation chemicals through the nation's capital. The plan does not prevent, or decrease, the threat of an attack on a rail car carrying highly dangerous materials."

DHS received similar letters in 2005 from Mayor Anthony Williams and Republican Councilmember Carol Schwartz. D.C. politicos, of course, would like the hazardous cargo to stop passing through tomorrow.


 Midterm elections: Staffers too busy, desperate and out-of-town to drown sorrow as usual

Good thing the elections are over; business has been slow at Capitol Hill bars, and politics is to blame.

Late last Thursday night I conducted extensive field research on the Pennsylvania Avenue strip. It was eerily calm and quiet at the Top of the Hill, the uppermost bar of the three-story Pour House. The place is usually a reliable meat market on Thursdays, with a crowd you can't walk through and noise you can't hear through. Bartender and Pour House manager Vicki Henderson was sitting on the wrong side of the bar, doing the crossword puzzle in Star magazine.

"Right now it's as bad as summer was," says Henderson. During the summer, when staffers return to their districts and other people just get the hell away from the insufferable weather, local bars see a lag in business. But it's supposed to last only while it's hot: "Usually things are picking up at this time."

That can't happen when Hill staffers are in a frenzy to keep their jobs. As Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman says, there's a "throw-out-the-bums" mood in the electorate, so the bums are sending their people out into the country more than they have for other elections: "People that don't normally get sent away are getting sent away," Henderson says.

Bartenders at every place I visited - except Remington's, curiously - reported that business had been slow. (The Tune Inn, the Hawk & Dove, the Capitol Lounge, 18th Amendment and the Pour House.)

"It's really hurt my pocket," says lifelong Hill resident John Sharkey, bartender and manager at the 18th Amendment on Pennsylvania Avenue. The downstairs part of the bar has been closed often lately because there've been so few customers, he says.

What this means is that this was the closest, most intense election in recent memory.

Sharkey's fellow 18th Amendment bartender Carly Hammond sums it up: "I've bartended on the Hill for six years and this is the goddamn slowest fall ever."


The Anacostia: There's crap in the water

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released its second report on the Anacostia River since 2004. The four-page scorecard is headed with a charming photo of a man kayaking near a hideous pile of refuse. It begins with a sentence touting the Anacostia's national distinction: "The Anacostia has long been recognized as one of the nation's most polluted rivers."

What's funny is that the report is actually good news for the river. In 2004, the CBF gave the Anacostia a miserable, failing grade of 17 out of 100. In 2006, the river's doing better - 19 out of 100.

"Despite slight improvement, water quality data continue to show a river that has too much untreated human waste, trash, sediment, and toxic chemicals," the report says.

Toxic street runoff has given two-thirds of a population of catfish species cancerous tumors. And fecal coliform is abundant. Whenever it rains, the sewer system becomes overloaded and dumps massive amounts of human waste directly into the river. So, just in case you didn't know, you're not supposed to swim in or eat fish out of this in this river.

The silver lining is that the river's got good prospects. People involved with the all the fancy development on the waterfront won't want to look at a nasty river - it could be one of those rare cases where economic development actually helps nature.