Everyday, trains carrying hazardous materials crisscross the country. We tend not to think of this potentially dangerous commerce until something goes wrong.
Something went terribly wrong on Feb. 3 when a portion of a train carrying a slew of chemicals, along with frozen vegetables, alcohol, cotton balls and other cargo, derailed in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio. Some of the toppled cars burned. Some spilled a portion of their cargo. Days later, authorities said they released and burned some of the more dangerous cargo to reduce the risk of an explosion.
A portion of the community was evacuated for several days and residents were told not to drink the water.
Three weeks later, many residents still say their questions – about the safety of their homes and the region’s air and water – have not been answered.
Without changes, which should come from both Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation – if the industry again fails to do them voluntarily – this horror could easily be repeated.
There are more than 1,000 train derailments in the U.S. a year. While that’s a significant drop from the 1970s, the number of train cars carrying hazardous materials on trains that have derailed has risen substantially since 1990, according to data published by the New York Times.
In recent years, efforts to require more safety measures have been sidetracked, by both Republican and Democratic administrations. Some of these measures, such as requirements for better braking technology and fuller reporting requirements, should be resurrected.
What is not helpful is for members of Congress and cabinet members to be sniping at one another over who is to blame for what happened in East Palestine.
Rather than blaming one another and trying to score political points, the administration – particularly the Transportation Department – should work closely with Congress to develop stronger rules to protect communities like East Palestine and the men and women who work in the rail industry.
After a runaway train carrying crude oil crashed and exploded, killing 47 people, in Lac Megantic, Quebec, in 2013 a suite of rule changes was proposed in the U.S., including requirements for stronger rail cars and upgraded braking technology. First responders have long complained that it is hard to respond to train derailments and accidents because they do not fully know what materials are on board. So, another provision would have required fuller disclosure of the hazardous materials carried by trains.
After lobbying from the industry, the rulemaking was pared back by the Obama administration, but it did move forward with requirements for improving braking systems on some trains.
Those rules were stopped by the Trump administration in 2018.
However, those rules would not have applied to the train that derailed in East Palestine. That’s because it was classified as a mixed freight train, with only three of its roughly 150 cars marked as carrying flammable liquids, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said in a social media post asking people to stop spreading misinformation about the derailment.
Still, the brake rules could be restored by Congress, or the Biden administration through executive order.
On Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged freight rail companies to deploy new inspection technologies and to phase in new, safer tank cars. He also urged the companies to notify state emergency officials in advance if hazardous gas is being transported through their state.
This is a start, but it will likely take new rules, from the department and/or Congress, to compel these improvements.
This is where lawmakers and regulators should focus their attention. In addition, lawmakers need to revisit worker safety, which likely includes improved working conditions and time off policies, after they voted last year to force rail workers to accept an agreement that some of their unions had rejected.
Many questions about the East Palestine incident need fuller answers. But, it is already clear that America’s railroads are lacking important safety measures. Congress and the Biden administration should work quickly to ensure these measures are put in place.