In Memphis, Hazardous Rail Measure Stalls

Council now waiting for Congress to take action on how hazmat trains would be routed


The Memphis City Council has put the brakes on an ordinance that would reroute trains carrying hazardous cargo outside of the city.

Councilwoman Carol Chumney, who has pushed for local regulation of hazardous rail traffic, told a council committee Tuesday that she's now inclined to wait to see what Congress does first.

But she warned that should Congress fail to act, "I intend to push forward with this."

Last month, the House of Representatives passed the Rail and Public Transportation Security bill requiring railroads to study safer routing of certain hazardous chemicals around major population centers. The House bill still has to be reconciled with a companion bill in the Senate.

The Memphis City Council, meanwhile, has had two readings on an ordinance to regulate hazardous rail traffic in the city. At Chumney's request, the council's Public Works, Transportation and General Services Committee agreed Tuesday to postpone the third and final reading.

Several industries that would be impacted by Chumney's proposal to reroute hazardous materials away from Memphis have spoken out against the city ordinance.

They believe the city is overstepping its authority, adding that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Transportation already are working on new rail regulations that would be uniform nationwide.

"The proposed amendment to the Memphis city ordinance is the first time we've seen a local government attempt to supersede federal law," John Hill, vice president and general manager of Valero Memphis Refinery wrote in a letter Tuesday to council members.

However, Chumney pointed out that more than a dozen other cities, including Washington, are attempting to do the same.

Lisa Wheeler, public affairs manager for Valero, said the company is the largest refiner in North America, moves many of its petroleum products by rail as well as by pipeline and barge. Officials say the Memphis refinery produces more than 7 million gallons of petroleum products each day and supplies 100 percent of the jet fuel to Memphis International Airport and FedEx.

"This would extremely upset the manner of our business from what we see right now," Wheeler said of the ordinance.

Similarly, in a joint letter April 4 from The American Chemistry Council and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry officials say the ordinance would have a significant impact on many manufacturers in Shelby County and across the state.

"Rerouting is an extremely difficult task on a transportation system that already has a problem delivering products on time," officials wrote.

Councilman Jack Sammons opposes the ordinance and agreed with Chumney's decision to delay. He said the ordinance would only move hazardous products from trains to trucks, creating more chances for hazardous spills.

Many of these chemicals are used in everyday products, including hair care products manufactured at Ampro Industries, where he is president.