Graffiti Artists Put Their Mark On War Against Terrorism

Sneaking Into Rail Tunnels, They Sound an Alarm Over Hazardous Cargo


WASHINGTON -- At 2 a.m. on a wet Wednesday last month, a graffiti artist who calls himself Serk was in a railroad tunnel not far from the Washington Monument, spray-painting his tag on the wall in bright blue, orange and magenta. On the adjacent tracks, less than 10 yards away, a train hauling toxic chemicals rolled by.

"See?" Serk whispered after the last car passed. "It wouldn't be hard at all for someone like al Qaeda to wait right here for the right train with the right poison and bang! Goodbye, Washington."

Normally Serk prefers to talk about paint, not politics. But in recent months, he and several of his friends have become important players in a local legislative struggle. Washington's city council is considering passing a law to regulate or even ban the movement of dangerous chemicals through the District of Columbia on the grounds that such shipments are tempting targets for terrorists. If the statute passes next month, Washington would be the first city in the country to regulate all shipments of hazardous materials passing through by rail and road. Hearings on the proposal start Friday.

The bill is backed by a coalition of scientists and environmentalists, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Its origins date back to a few months after 9/11, when Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace's Toxics Campaign, started asking various federal agencies what was being done about the shipments of dangerous chemicals through the nation's capital. More than 1.7 million carloads of dangerous substances move annually on freight trains across the U.S. through hundreds of towns and cities. About 28% of these pass through Washington en route to factories and chemical plants north and south of the capital.

Mr. Hind wrote letters and made calls to the Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service. In each case, he says, he was rebuffed. All three agencies decline to discuss the details of security arrangements for hazardous-material shipments.

Mr. Hind says that the government was so closemouthed he wasn't even able to get confirmation that shipments of dangerous chemicals were passing through the nation's capital. So he turned to an unlikely source of railway information: graffiti artists. "Just as a spy satellite has a different view of the Earth, a graffiti artist has a unique perspective on his world from underneath bridges and inside tunnels," Mr. Hind says.

Mr. Hind figured that since the street Picassos are always on the rails, they might know what was coming over the tracks. Under federal law, tank cars of toxic chemicals that travel by rail and road must be labeled so that in an accident, emergency crews know what they are dealing with.

Mr. Hind also sees the graffiti artists as living proof that the rails are not secure. Scott Davis, a former Amtrak police officer who until 2001 ran an antigraffiti unit in Washington says: "Graffiti on the rails means one thing: access."

Through a network of friends and local artists, Mr. Hind sent out word that Greenpeace was looking for help from writers, as graffiti artists call themselves. It wasn't long before several artists answered the call. Among them was Serk, a 27-year-old free-lance researcher and longtime wall scribbler. He agreed to be interviewed for this story on the condition that his anonymity be protected since he is vulnerable to charges of trespassing and vandalism.

Slight of build, the baby-faced Serk began his tagging career on the rails as a Washington teenager, at first just hanging out with graffiti writers and snapping pictures of their work. His tag is an acronym for Searching Eyes Recording Knowledge.

Serk and his friends paint almost exclusively along the railways because it is one of the few places in Washington that don't get "buffed" or rubbed out by the city's two "graffiti buster" cleaning trucks. The tracks belong to the railroad, and the district has no jurisdiction to go in and clean them up. And keeping your painting up for all to see is what the game is all about, Serk said. "Graffiti writers have a romantic sense of ownership of the rails and tunnels around a city," Serk says. "Those are our spaces. That's why we decided to help Greenpeace."

Over a period of several weeks last summer, Serk and his friends guided Mr. Hind and Greenpeace photographers through broken fences to show them not only when and where to find trains carrying dangerous cargo, but also how to get right up next to them. All of the visits to the tracks were made in daylight hours. The trains moved slowly and rattled so loudly that it was easy for the graffiti artists and their companions -- including a reporter on one occasion -- to hide before engineers could spot them. Graffiti covered walls and pylons like a rash all along the track.

Serk's tours confirmed Greenpeace's suppositions about the daily frequency of hazardous-material shipments and how easy it was to approach trains carrying hundreds of tons of chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen fluoride and hydrochloric and phosphoric acids. Passenger trains and freight trains share the same tracks in and out of the District of Columbia. But instead of heading to Union Station, freight trains veer toward nearby Capitol Hill and the Mall and then swing south of Jefferson Memorial.

CSX Transportation, the Jacksonville, Fla., railroad that owns the freight rails running through Washington, acknowledges that trespassing and graffiti are problems but denies that they signal a more serious security threat. CSX and the American Association of Railroads are fighting Washington's proposed shipping ban, saying they are opposed to any local regulation of their business and that their security measures are already sufficient to deter terrorists. Such measures, which they say are continually being improved, include frequent inspection of tracks and close monitoring of hazardous-material shipments.

CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan and the company's security chief Skip Elliot say the new law would force them to reroute shipments, shifting the danger onto other communities. "What's then to stop these communities from following Washington's example banning hazardous shipments? Rail transport would grind to halt," Mr. Sullivan says.

On several occasions, at the request of the Department of Homeland Security, CSX has delayed, rerouted or suspended hazardous-material shipments, to prevent possible attacks on Washington, CSX and Homeland Security officials say. The most recent instance was during President Bush's State of the Union address this week.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation believes that the easiest place for terrorists to lay their hands on quantities of toxic chemicals sufficient to kill and maim thousands is a rail tanker. "It is far easier to attack a rail car full of toxic industrial chemicals than it is to compromise the security of a military base and obtain these materials," Troy Morgan, an FBI expert on weapons of mass destruction, told a chemical-security conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the American Chemistry Council last summer.

According to the chemical industry's own published worst-case estimate, a leak from one 90-ton rail car of chlorine in downtown Washington would endanger the population within a 14-mile radius -- 2.4 million people.

Jay P. Borris, a chief scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratories in Washington, spoke to the council in October about the possible consequences of a terrorist attack. He said that in the first 30 minutes after a car with chlorine ruptured, people could die of pulmonary edema at the rate of 100 per second.

Based on the testimony of Dr. Boris and of Greenpeace on what it had learned on the rails from graffiti artists, three members of Washington's 13-member city council -- one Democrat and two Republicans -- on Oct. 21 introduced the local bill. It would require transporters of hazardous materials to seek a permit from the city for hazardous materials shipments that would be granted only if there is no possible alternative route.

Mr. Hind and representatives of CSX plan to be at the hearing Friday. Serk says he will be on the tracks painting.

Write to Robert Block at