This small railroad overpass may be the most dangerous bridge in America.
It holds the potential to cripple Congress and leave the United States government shut down for months. The solution is simple. But that simple solution would cost a special interest some extra money. So this hole in national security has never been plugged.
A New York Times editorial calls this bridge, at 2nd & E Streets, SW, in Washington, DC, “the weakest point in America’s defense against terrorism.”
It’s just four blocks from the US Capitol. And the rail traffic across it includes tank cars loaded with deadly chlorine. A single, 90-ton tanker, hit with explosives, rocket propelled grenades, or a truck bomb at this bridge could put the lives of a quarter million federal workers — and every member of Congress — in danger.
A History of Chlorine Gas
Chlorine was one of the first modern chemical weapons, used by the Germans at at the Second Battle of Ypres
on April 22, 1915.
On 9/11, wastewater treatment managers in Washington, DC realized they had enough chlorine stored in tankers inside the District to kill thousands — if a hijacked airliner hit them. They were clustered together like battleships at Pearl Harbor. The Washington Post
reported on November 10, 2001:
“As flames rose from the Pentagon and another plane neared Washington, managers of the region’s largest sewage treatment plant had a chilling realization: Their facility across the Potomac River housed 10 rail cars of toxic chemicals, and the rupture of even one would kill thousands within minutes. “
Since 9/11, DC’s treatment plant has switched to safer disinfectants. But the threat of a chlorine gas cloud spreading over the capital city — killing Congressmen and Supreme Court Justices, seeping through the White House — is still real.
A “Force Multiplier”
The New York Times
editorial says this is a well-known and serious threat:
“When antiterrorism experts try to predict what could happen in the next 9/11 attack, the dispersal of deadly chemicals is at or near the top of their list. An assault on a chemical plant or a rail car filled with chemicals would turn another unremarkable part of the infrastructure into a powerful instrument of death. An attack on a single rail tanker filled with chlorine could kill or seriously harm 100,000 people in less than an hour.
Because of its location in the middle of official Washington, a chlorine leak from a rail tanker on the bridge at Second Street could endanger much of the federal government, including Congress and the Supreme Court.”
It’s easy to spot a chlorine car on a freight train. The stuff is deadly, so the cars are clearly marked in case first responders have to deal with a derailment — or a bomb attack — on a train. The Times paints a scenario where a truck bomb is set off under the bridge — as a clearly marked chlorine car passes overhead — spraying poisonous chlorine gas across the nation’s capital. So a simple terrorist weapon like a bomb multiplies it’s force through spreading chlorine gas — kind of like how terrorists multiplied box cutters into jumbo jets flown into buildings on 9/11.
This picture (at left) of the bridgehead was taken just 20 yards from US Capitol grounds — near the Rayburn and Longworth House Office Buildings — home offices of two thirds of the US House of Representatives.
The Simple Fix
The fix is easy. Simply pass a law barring dangerous chemicals from passing directly through DC — make the chemicals take a route around the city. The DC City Council did that — but a federal judge blocked the law from taking effect.
CSX, the railroad that owns the bridge, doesn’t like the city’s idea. It’d cost them more money to send cars around the city.
And CSX has spent a lot of money on lobbying and campaign contributions. About $12,070,500
on lobbying between 2000 and 2004, and just over $291,000
in campaign contributions during the 2004 election.
The Cost to America
It could cost America a lot more. If the Congress is ever knocked out in a chemical attack like the one the Times says could happen, it could be four months before the US could take prolonged military action against an attacker.
Governors can appoint new Senators. But if a Representative dies in office, the people in his District have to elect a new replacement. That could mean months before Congress could approve the money needed to pay for military action, pass new laws needed to protect against new terror attacks, and simply carry on with the business of keeping the federal government in business.
And political infighting could further complicate matters. The bridge is next to the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters and just a block from the Republican National Committee’s national headquarters. That could create a new level of political chaos as political parties try to rebuild party structures as the country tries to rebuild Congress.
In 1996, Bill Clinton ran on the promise of building “A Bridge to the 21st Century.” Now, in that new century, CSX runs a dangerous “force multiplier” across a bridge threatening to set this country back in the War on Terror. The solution is simple. If Congress has the resolve to reject the arm twisting of lobbyists and campaign contributions.