Buttigieg urges railroads to improve safety changes after fiery Ohio derailment

Officials continue to conduct operation and inspect the area after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, United States on February 17, 2023. (US Environmental Protection Agency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wants the nation’s freight railroads to immediately act to improve safety while regulators try to strengthen safety rules in the wake of a fiery derailment in Ohio that forced evacuations when toxic chemicals were released and burned.

Buttigieg announced a package of reforms Tuesday — two days after he warned the railroad responsible for the derailment, Norfolk Southern, to fulfill its promises to clean up the mess just outside East Palestine, Ohio, and help the town recover. He said the Department of Transportation will hold the railroad accountable for any safety violations that contributed to the Feb. 3 crash near the Pennsylvania border.

"While ensuring the safety of those impacted by this crash is the immediate priority, we also have to recognize that this represents an important moment to redouble our efforts to make this far less likely to happen again in the future," Buttigieg said.

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Even though government data shows that derailments have declined in recent years, there were still 1,049 of them last year.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency plans to return to the town of 4,700 Tuesday along with the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania to discuss the cleanup and efforts to keep people safe on the same day officials plan to open a medical clinic staffed by contamination experts to evaluate residents' complaints. 

State and federal officials have reiterated that their testing of air and water samples in the area doesn't show dangerous levels of any toxins, but some people have been complaining about constant headaches and irritated eyes as they worry about returning to their homes.

Buttigieg said railroads and tank car owners should take action themselves to accelerate their plan to upgrade the tank cars that haul flammable liquids like crude oil and ethanol by 2025 instead of waiting to comply with the 2029 standard Congress ultimately approved after regulators suggested the earlier deadline. 

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He also said freight railroads should quickly agree to use a confidential hotline regulators created that lets employees report safety concerns without fear of retribution, and reach agreements to provide their employees with paid sick time to help prevent fatigue.

He also wants railroads to stop asking for waivers from inspection requirements every time they develop new technology to improve inspections, because he said the technology should supplement but not replace human inspections.

Railroad unions have also been raising concerns that car inspections are being rushed and preventative maintenance may be getting neglected after widespread job cuts in the industry in recent years that they say have made railroads riskier. Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department coalition, said Ohio's derailment should prompt reforms.

"I do think that there’s a moment to look in the mirror as an entire industry and decide what we can do better," Regan said. "I think the industry by and large has been reluctant to make the types of changes that are needed. They have obviously fought regulations in the past, but I think they are running out of excuses here."

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Buttigieg said regulators will be looking at whether they can revive a proposed rule the Trump administration dropped that would have required upgraded, electronically-controlled brakes on certain trains filled with flammable liquids that are designated "high-hazardous flammable train." The rule was dropped after Congress directed regulators to use a strict cost-benefit analysis to evaluate the rule and they decided the potential benefits couldn't justify the costs.

Buttigieg said he'll ask Congress to "untie our hands here" on the braking rule, and regulators may look at expanding which trains are covered by the "high-hazardous" rules that were announced in 2015 after several fiery crude oil train derailments — the worst of which killed 47 people and decimated the Canadian town of Lac Mégantic in 2013. He also said Congress should raise the current $225,455 limit on railroad safety fines at least tenfold to create a better deterrent for the multibillion-dollar corporations.

Buttigieg criticized railroads for lobbying against the braking rule and challenging it in court. But railroad safety expert David Clarke, who previously led the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said the industry shouldn’t be criticized too heavily for pushing back against proposed regulations when there are questions about their benefits.

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"The fact that you couch those in terms of safety makes it seem like it’s, you know, mom, God and apple pie — anything safety related is sacred," Clarke said. "But the bottom line is companies have to look at the benefits and the cost of any expenditure."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was incredulous when he learned the Norfolk Southern train that derailed didn’t carry that designation, meaning that the railroad didn’t have to notify the state about the dangerous chemicals it was carrying or follow detailed requirements about finding the safest route for those chemicals.

"This is absurd," DeWine said. "Congress needs to take a look at how this is handled."

Regulators and the Association of American Railroads trade group say there are hundreds of pages of other rules railroads must follow when they transport any hazardous chemicals, whether it is the vinyl chloride that has gotten so much attention in this derailment, crude oil, nuclear materials or any of the hundreds of other dangerous chemicals that railroads routinely carry.

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It’s not clear whether the "high-hazardous" rules could have prevented this derailment. The federal National Transportation Safety Board is in the early stages of its investigation, although officials with that agency have said they believe the failure of an axle on one of the railcars not long after the train crew got a warning about a possible mechanical problem caused this crash.

The Federal Railroad Administration will also work to finalize its proposed rule to require two-person crews in most circumstances that Buttigieg pointed to as one of the Biden administration's main efforts to improve rail safety over the past two years.

The president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Eddie Hall, said he believes the freight railroads' efforts to cut crews down to one person represent a clear threat to safety.

"Railroads in the United States largely self-regulate, and right now, rather than learn from their mistakes and improve oversight and safety, they are going in the opposite direction," Hall said. "We welcome efforts by the Department of Transportation to improve rail safety."

Norfolk Southern officials declined to respond directly to Buttigieg on Monday other than to reiterate the railroad’s commitment to safety and to cleaning up the derailment. CEO Alan Shaw said in a statement the railroad reissued Monday that he knows the railroad will be judged by its actions, but he pledged to do everything he could to help "get East Palestine back on its feet as soon as possible."

As part of those efforts, the railroad said it has designated one of its local employees who lives in the town as a liaison between East Palestine and Norfolk Southern. That person will oversee a $1 million budget to help the community in addition a $1 million fund the railroad created to help residents and $3.4 million in payments it has already handed out to families. 

Those payments are likely just the start, as the EPA has said Norfolk Southern will be responsible for the cleanup costs and several lawsuits have already been filed against the railroad.

University of Illinois professor Christopher Barkan, who teaches a class on railroad operating safety and advises the industry on tank car safety standards and environmental concerns, said he believes the railroad will follow through.

"I haven’t the slightest doubt that Norfolk Southern is going to be responsive, and continue to be responsive. until all of the environmental problems have been addressed," Barkan said. "I understand why the people in that town are really concerned right now. It’s a horrible thing to have happen in your town."