Homeland Security: Railing on the Feds over hazmats

The District has made a move in its fight with the Feds over toxic trains: On Dec. 19, the D.C. Council voted in favor of a bill that will penalize transportation companies if they spill hazardous materials in the city. This provision is aimed specifically at CSX Corp., whose chlorine trains the council so far has failed to ban outright from within city limits.

The District has made a move in its fight with the Feds over toxic trains: On Dec. 19, the D.C. Council voted in favor of a bill that will penalize transportation companies if they spill hazardous materials in the city. This provision is aimed specifically at CSX Corp., whose chlorine trains the council so far has failed to ban outright from within city limits.

The District enacted a ban on the hazmat trains last year, but CSX sued, and various federal agencies filed supporting briefs. A judge shelved the ban pending a resolution of the lawsuit.

Former D.C. Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who co-sponsored the legislation, says the new bill is “a fallback provision if we ultimately lose the court case.” The legislation also provides for a beefed-up emergency management agency and a commission on homeland security. The District is taking these security measures, Patterson says, because “the federal government is dropping the ball.”

CSX, of course, would prefer federal ball-handling to District ball-handling.

“We do not ever discount state or local laws, but to this point federal regulations have been the laws that govern the nation’s railroads,” a Jacksonville, Fla.-based spokesman for CSX, Gary Sease, says. Sease says CSX has been rerouting trains from the inner-city tracks voluntarily anyway.

In the meantime, the Department of Homeland Security (one of the agencies opposing the City Council’s hazmat ban) recently introduced plans to spend $10 million on a “virtual fence” — cameras and motion sensors — on portions of track in the city.

Patterson and others dismissed DHS’s “Rail Pilot Project” as a farce back in September 2005. Now that the federal National Capital Planning Commission has approved the project, Patterson says CSX will point to the cameras and say, “Look, the railroads are safe,” and then use the project as cover to discontinue any inconvenient rerouting.

CSX trains roll through the southeastern core of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. And it’s not like the company is infallible; on Nov. 16 last year, three CSX coal cars derailed near Bowie, Md.

In a horror scenario dreamed up by the Naval Research Laboratory, a downtown accident involving one of CSX’s chlorine trains could result in a miles-wide toxic cloud killing hundreds of thousands of people. The ability of a camera to stop an attack or accident is dubious, but at least we’ll have a $10 million picture of whomever is responsible. “It’s appalling,” Patterson says.


 Smoking Ban: The end of the stench

The smoking ban went into effect at 12 a.m. Jan. 2. Lots of people probably have been looking forward to trading in the stench of smoke for the stench of parental government regulation — none of them were at the Tune Inn on the eve of the ban.

“It’s about freedom,” says Michelle Miller, an Australian who has lived on Capitol Hill for five years. “I’m not going to come to the Tune Inn if I can’t f——— smoke!”

Bartender Ned Kramer (a friend of mine) says he worries how the ban will affect his bar — a large amount of the Tune Inn’s customers are regulars, and nearly all of them are smokers. He wonders if they’ll just buy six-packs and stay home.

“Quite possibly,” says Miller.

When midnight strikes, nobody stops smoking. Instead, a mood of insurrection develops. Miller starts walking up and down the bar, informing people that they’re breaking the law (between drags of her cigarette).

When I called the Metropolitan Police Department’s public information office earlier that day, Sgt. Joe Gentile said he had no idea whether the MPD would be enforcing the ban at midnight (dealing with Gerald Ford’s funeral being a more pressing concern). Kramer said he believed the ban began at the start of business on the 2nd, not at midnight.

Either way, Miller and her friend Jeff continue to rouse the rabble. Everybody present starts making a stink over personal liberty. One smoker at the bar, when confronted by Miller about his lawbreaking, says, in a barely decipherable drunken slur, “Let’s just smoke. They’ll come in with a $500 citation, but a good lawyer will get you off because they’ll say, ‘Well, were there any other witnesses?’ And we’ll all say” — and for this, the 10 people at the bar joined him — “‘Nooooo!’”



Capital Punishment: Gooch cooked

A federal judge has given the final green light to the capital murder trial of Southeast D.C.’s own Larry Gooch — only the third D.C. death penalty case in the last 30 years. The death penalty isn’t in the D.C. Code, but since the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutes local thugs (D.C. residents do not get to elect a district attorney), our prosecutors have the option of trying bad guys in either D.C. or federal court.

Gooch’s defense attorneys, Jensen Barber and Thomas Heslep, had filed a 104-page motion opposing the death penalty for their client. Among a host of constitutional issues, Barber and Heslep argued that the government “is engaging in blatant forum shopping” by prosecuting Gooch in federal rather than local court.

The federal forum is a particularly inappropriate one because D.C. residents have demonstrated overwhelming opposition to the death penalty. In a 1992 congressionally imposed referendum, D.C. residents voted two-to-one against the “ultimate punishment.” (In the two other capital cases in the past three decades, one defendant avoided execution because prosecutors missed a filing deadline and the other was sent to prison for life by a deadlocked jury.)

Judge Rosemary Collyer denied the motion, finding that the charges against Gooch (which include racketeering) make federal court an appropriate forum.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, is miffed that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is pushing for the death penalty. Norton is an opponent of the death penalty nationally, but is particularly annoyed that the U.S. attorney would disregard the wishes of a large majority of District voters. (She introduced a bill to create a D.C. district attorney’s office last year — it’s not getting out of committee anytime soon.)

But beyond the mere principle of serving constituents, strong opposition to execution among D.C. residents means it’s unlikely that pursuing the death penalty will be anything but a waste of time. 

“This is a strong anti-death penalty jurisdiction,” Norton says. “The U.S. attorney is wasting the taxpayers’ money when he gambles on getting 12 residents in federal court to unanimously vote for the death penalty.”