Baltimore's Martin O'Malley and about four dozen other U.S. mayors are urging the federal government to require railroads to inform local governments of any plans to transport hazardous materials through their communities.
In a letter to outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge this week, the mayors pointed to this month's Norfolk Southern train derailment in South Carolina, which led to the rupture of a tank car carrying chlorine.
Nine people were killed and about 250 injured by the release of the toxic chlorine cloud in the small town of Graniteville. Nearly 5,500 people were evacuated from their homes, many of them for more than a week.
In Baltimore, freight trains carry shipments of hazardous chemicals including chlorine through the Howard Street Tunnel downtown. Baltimore officials say they are notified when the railroads store a chlorine-laden car within the city limits but not when they are moving through.
Asked last night whether he thought any good would come of sending the letter, O'Malley said he was not optimistic.
"We don't generally get a response from the White House. I hope it will, but I'm not optimistic, given their track record for the last four years," he said.
The mayors sent their letter Tuesday at the annual winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington. Ridge spoke to the mayors Wednesday and mentioned the Graniteville incident but gave no specific reply to their request.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security was not available to comment yesterday because federal offices were closed for the inauguration of President Bush.
In their letter, the mayors noted that more than 90,000 shipments of chlorine are transported around the country each year. They restated the conference's repeated calls that city governments be notified of such shipments, a move the railroad industry has resisted.
"These types of trains run on tracks through the hearts of our cities," the mayors wrote. "Our citizens should have a reasonable expectation that hazardous materials are being shipped in the safest manner possible and that local first responders are aware of such shipments in advance."
The railroad industry has taken the position that sharing information about shipments with local officials increases the opportunity for leaks of information to terrorists.
Among the mayors signing the letter was Bob Young of Augusta, Ga., about 10 miles from Graniteville. He compared the train wreck to a weapon of mass destruction.
"We've been crying for three years, asking the federal government to please assist us with one easy step: Tell us what's coming through our cities," Young said.
In Baltimore, visitors to an unfenced, lightly guarded CSX rail yard in the Fairfield section south of the Hanover Street Bridge last week observed cars used to transport chlorine and other chemicals parked on the tracks.
CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said chemical cars stored at that site are sometimes full. He said he could not say whether the ones parked there last week contained chemicals.
Critics of the railroad industry contend that taking tank cars carrying dangerous chemicals into densely populated cities makes them an attractive target for terrorists.
Sullivan said yesterday that CSX is devoting significant resources to safety.
"We believe we are already doing a great deal of work with those communities to see that they are prepared," he said. Sullivan said the mayors' proposal would require the railroad to make more than 1,000 notifications each day.
CSX and other railroads are typically tight-lipped about the routing and timing of their shipments of hazardous cargo. Sullivan would not discuss reports that it has been rerouting such shipments around Washington under pressure from the District of Columbia Council.
CSX spokesman Gary Sease made an exception to that policy yesterday when he said the railroad will significantly reduce freight traffic around Jacksonville, Fla., particularly in the area of the stadium, when that city is host to the Super Bowl and its preliminaries Feb. 3 to Feb. 6.
Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson and the Associated Press contributed to this article.