Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hazardous rail regulation – A local or national issue?

  Which level of government should hold the authority to regulate rail shipments of hazardous waste –- local governments or the federal government (or both)?  There are lawsuits pending over local government regulation of rail transport in this age of fear of terrorism.   

Hazmat   There is no doubt that local governments feel most intensely the concern over the risk that a terrorist might seek to attack a train carrying hazardous chemicals, with potentially catastrophic consequences.  But a carte blanche to regulate hazardous interstate rail traffic would also give state and local governments a tempting opportunity for local protectionism.  If, to choose a random example, St. Louis decided that there was no economic benefit to accepting such shipments through the city, it might then rationally decide to ban them –- with the chief result being that more hazardous shipments are sent through Memphis, which then is encouraged to send them through Vicksburg.  The “Protectionist Presumption” states that we should assume that a local government will be motivated, at least in part, by a desire to protect itself at the expense of its neighbors.

   The best solution, therefore, would be for the federal government to address the issue on a “level playing field,” by imposing safety precautions and deciding which routes should be avoided, balancing risks with benefits, on the basis of the overall national interest.  Just as it has done with the decision to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, right?   


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