Ohio train derailment: The bipartisan law that could stop the next poison plague

Following last month’s train derailment and toxin spill in eastern Palestine, Ohio, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to allow more oversight of railroad companies and improve industry safety regulations to prevent future accidents.

On February 3, a freight train carrying five tank cars of the toxic chemical vinyl chloride derailed and ignited, prompting first responders to evacuate the area. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board found that a wheel bearing severely overheated immediately before the accident, and while the train braked after detectors detected temperatures above normal, it did so too late and through no apparent fault of the workers on board.

It’s still hard to say exactly where in the chain of command things went wrong, from the private railway companies running their own maintenance and inspections to the policymakers who regulate them. But whoever is to blame, residents of eastern Palestine and surrounding communities in Pennsylvania, where the toxic fumes have now spread, are still complaining of ailments ranging from skin rashes to bronchitis and have been told to take long-term care of their health monitor.

Though both parties are pointing fingers at each other over the accident, the bill is a compromise between Republican Sens. JD Vance (Ohio), Marco Rubio (Florida) and Josh Hawley (Missouri) and Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Bob Casey and John Fetterman (both from Pennsylvania). The bill won praise from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, but it’s not clear if it will get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate or the GOP-controlled House.

in one Video Posted on Twitter, Senator Brown accused railroad executives, including those at Norfolk Southern, operator of the train that derailed in East Palestine, of failing to invest adequately in train safety and laying off workers while spending billions on share buybacks.

“We know this means more train derailments and less safe trains. This means that in too many cases hazardous materials end up in the water or in the air, as they did in East Palestine. This legislation will start to fix that and hold Norfolk Southern in particular accountable,” he said.

What is on the bill – and what is not

Known as the Railroad Safety Act of 2023, the bill adopts many of the reforms requested by the Biden administration. It would require railway companies to notify emergency authorities when transporting hazardous materials; develop a plan in case gases such as vinyl chloride are released; and to mitigate closed level crossings due to train delays.

It would introduce regulations requiring “well-trained, crews of two on board each train” in relation to train length and weight, route selection, speed limits, route standards, maintenance, problem detection and more. In the accident in East Palestine, the detectors were only triggered shortly before the derailment. Railway companies that do not comply would have to reckon with higher maximum penalties under the law.

The bill also increases funding for HAZMAT training, for research and development related to tank car safety features, and for the Federal Railroad Administration in general.

It is difficult to say whether these measures would have prevented the accident in East Palestine. But they might have enabled workers to identify disruptions early and prevent them through preventive maintenance on the train and track.

While the bill makes strides in improving safety regulations, it doesn’t include everything that’s on Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s wish list. First, he has asked railway undertakings to “join a close-call reporting system that protects whistleblowers who discover problems that could lead to accidents”, which currently only one freight railway undertaking is participating voluntarily. (Rail companies have previously cited concerns about data confidentiality and their own internal security reporting systems as reasons for not participating.)

The bill also fails to protect railway workers, who threatened to go on strike in December amid complaints of grueling working conditions with poor work-life balance. They have reported that they are on call 24 hours a day, every day of the year, unable to call in sick or even go to the doctor. This month, President Joe Biden reluctantly signed into law an averting strike bill, forcing unions to accept a deal that included no paid sick leave — a major sticking point in the negotiations. Offering the 15 paid sick days demanded by the unions would have forced transport companies, including Norfolk Southern, to hire more workers, eroding their profits. But Rubio and Vance have questioned whether too thin a distribution of these workers might have contributed to the safety deficiencies that led to the accident in eastern Palestine.

Who is to blame for the accident in East Palestine?

Both Republicans and Democrats blame each other for the policy gaps that made the East Palestine accident possible.

Though Buttigieg faced attacks from the right in January amid pandemic supply chain disruptions and a federal flight security system outage, criticism has reached a whole new level since the accident in eastern Palestine. Despite supporting bipartisan reforms, Vance criticized Buttigieg for failing to show up at the scene for 20 days. House Republicans even introduced a resolution calling for Buttigieg to resign.

“Secretary Buttigieg seemed more interested in continuing press coverage of aroused initiatives and climate nonsense than in attending to the fundamental elements of his day-to-day work,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in the Senate.

For his part, Buttigieg has claimed that the Trump administration bears responsibility for rolling back regulations that required periodic safety checks and emergency brakes for the transportation of combustible materials.

“I heard (former President Donald Trump) that he had nothing to do with it, even though it was in his administration. So if he had nothing to do with it and they did it against his will in his government, maybe he can come out and say he supports us going in a different direction,” Buttigieg said during a visit to eastern Palestine.

As my colleague Ben Jacobs writes, Trump’s decision to visit East Palestine last month shows that Republicans have used the accident not only as a means of attacking the Biden administration, but also as an “opportunity for the GOP’s populist wing to ‘blow’ itself.” further detach from party orthodoxy and target American business.”

The White House has also criticized Republicans for pressuring the Federal Railroad Administration to rely more on automated track inspections than manual inspections and for proposing to cut funding for chemical spill cleanup.

Given the explosive nature of the accident, it’s a wonder the bipartisan group was able to reach an agreement on reforms at all. But it appears to have been spearheaded by an unlikely partnership between Ohio’s two senators: Brown, a progressive, and Vance, a pro-Trump newcomer.

“[Vance has been]just cooperative in that regard,” Brown told Politico.

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