As industry employees push for improvements to bipartisan railway safety legislation and reject efforts by rail companies to introduce new safety rules on their own, one public health advocacy group on Thursday called on the Biden administration to do everything in its power to make trains safer for workers and American communities.
Last month's train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio—which sent toxic chemicals into the environment as officials conducted a controlled release of the vinyl chloride that was carried by the train—was the result of successful lobbying by the rail industry against safety regulations, said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and President Joe Biden have the power to reinstate crucial Obama-era regulations that could prevent further accidents, said the group.
"Secretary Buttigieg and this administration must act immediately to reduce the risks of these horrific derailments by first reestablishing the commonsense rail freight safety standards implemented by [former President Barack] Obama and unconscionably rolled back by [former President Donald] Trump," said Hauter.
The Trump administration in 2018 rolled back regulations mandating the use of highly responsive electronic braking systems for trains carrying oil and other flammable materials.
A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that an overheated wheel bearing rather than the brake system was likely behind the derailment of the Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, but a number of other derailments in recent weeks have prompted calls for the regulations to be reinstated immediately.
On Thursday, just before the CEO of Norfolk Southern testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and apologized for the accident, another train owned by the company left the tracks in Alabama. CEO Alan Shaw was informed of the accident by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who said, "You may need to look into that."
On Wednesday, a train owned by freight company CSX derailed in Sandstone, West Virginia and released an "unknown" quantity of diesel fuel and oil into the New River.
"While the serious health impacts of the derailment in East Palestine have only just begun to emerge, we know that toxic spills like these can be devastating to communities and families for decades," said Hauter. "All trains carrying dangerous toxic chemicals should be classified as 'high-hazard flammable trains,' which would require more stringent safety requirements and notice to state and local officials of their contents."
"These are actions," she added, "that Secretary Buttigieg and the administration can and must make immediately."