"The goal of this rule is not to prohibit the movement of these hazardous materials," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters during a conference call with the media. "Moving commodities such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia by rail is absolutely vital to our national economy."
Rail safety advocates, concerned about accidents involving the release of poison or explosive gas, have for decades sought stricter standards for hazardous shipments. The terror attacks of 9/11 put a new emphasis on such efforts by raising the specter of deliberate sabotage aimed at killing thousands in key urban areas.
Many of the Bay Area's densely populated Bay-side neighborhoods are bordered by rail lines regularly traveled by such shipments and peppered with rail sidings used to park unattended loads of the deadly substances.
In the wake of 9/11, a growing number of U.S. cities have looked to the city government of Washington D.C., which challenged a major railroad, CSXT, for shipping chlorine tankers very near the U.S. Capitol, and the federal government, for taking the side of the railroads that local governments have no jurisdiction over rail transport.
For five years after the 2001 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government did little to regulate such things as chlorine, used as a chemical weapon in trenches of Europe during World War I and in the neighborhoods of Baghdad last year.
But in 2006, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed the regulations whose final language was announced Wednesday.
The new rules call for railroads on June 1 to begin evaluating all routes used to ship "highly hazardous" substances, which include a variety of breathable gases, explosives and radioactive materials. By September 2009, the railroads must adopt safe routes based on a list of 27 criteria, such as population density, quality of tracks and proximity of iconic targets.
The rules call for railroads to cooperate with local communities in doing their analysis, something that hasn't been done before, said Randy Sawyer, director of Hazardous Materials Programs for Contra Costa County's health department.
"If they do a good job, I think that would be great, but I'm not sure what they're required to do," Sawyer said. Dealing with local communities could mean anything from contacting city fire departments to consulting with state wildlife officials on potential environmental impacts, he said.
But the rules don't address substances such as highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas, Sawyer noted, which is ubiquitous in East Bay communities. One county-run preschool in Rodeo is across the street from a regular parking area for strings of LPG cars.
The union representing railroad workers had similar concerns.
"We think it's a good first step, but obviously the input from the communities and how the railroads will value that input is extremely important," said David White, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Three years ago, the union surveyed 4,000 members of its Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and found "pretty dismal picture" of how deadly chemicals were handled.
"What they told us is that the rail yards were wide open and trespassers are seen every day," White said, calling the situation a "recipe for disaster."
Fred Millar, a rail security activist and consultant for the environmental group, Friends of the Earth, said the rules are "a pretense for regulation."
"The way they've defined the problem is by the individual railroads each railroad's route," Millar said. "That virtually eliminates the possibility of rerouting."
For instance, the Bay Area's biggest freight carrier, Union Pacific, if it wanted to bypass the area's population centers, it would need to use tracks owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The regulations don't require such cooperation between railroads, Millar said.
Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Boardman, who made the announcement Wednesday with Peters, said any changes in shipment routes would depend on the mandated analysis. He refused to predict how many, if any, routes would be eliminated or moved.
"This is about routing, not rerouting," Boardman said. "Anybody that is predicting no change, I think is premature. My expectation is that some routes for hazardous materials will be safer routes."
One of the ways - short of rerouting - railroads might improve hazardous shipment routes would be to upgrade tracks and reduce the chance of derailments.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is also working on a set of regulations, also proposed in 2006, that would govern how highly hazardous shipments are handled. The proposed rules would require shippers, railroads and receivers to keep better track of the chemicals, in theory eliminating situations such as dropping off tank cars at night with no one to receive them.
Background on the regulations cited in the Federal Register say the rules are aimed at preventing deliberate terror attacks or accidents such as the 2005 freight derailment that caused the rupture of chlorine tank cars in Graniteville, S.C., which killed nine and injured 554.
While complying with the new regulations are estimated to cost the railroad industry $20 million over 20 years, the South Carolina incident cost $154 million.
"If the measures proposed in this interim final rule prevent just one major accident or intentional release over a twenty-year period," regulators reported, "the resulting benefits would more than justify the potential compliance costs."
Union Pacific spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said her railroad "still needs time to review it and see how it's going to impact our business."
"It's important to note that carrying some of this cargo by rail continues to be one of the safest ways to transport it," Richmond said. "The cargo gets to its destination safely 99.997 percent of the time."