U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks about federal funding for the Hudson River Tunnel project in New York on January 31, 2023.

(Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Threatening Legal Action, Groups Call On Buttigieg to Ensure Ohio Toxic Train Crash Is Last of Its Kind

"It should not take another exploding train to get DOT's attention."

With progressive lawmakers and rail workers condemning the profit-driven railway scheduling policies that employees say are to blame for the February 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, environmental advocates on Friday called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to reinstate safety rules to prevent similar crashes.

Representing Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Washington Conservation Action, and Stand, environmental law group Earthjustice wrote to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, demanding a response to an administrative appeal the organizations originally put forward in 2018, after the agency repealed electronic braking system requirements for trains carrying hazardous material.

After the Trump administration repealed the rule—with the strong support of rail companies including Norfolk Southern, the operator of the train that crashed in East Palestine—the groups warned that the Department of Transportation (DOT) had not conducted mandatory safety tests and did not allow the public to provide input into the change.

Following more than four years of "silence" from the federal government, including the Biden administration, the groups wrote, it has taken "a tragedy... to turn attention to this issue again."

"The Biden administration must do everything in its power to protect the people in East Palestine and other rail-adjacent communities from the devastating impacts of train accidents and explosions."

Two weeks after the disaster, the agency "has not moved to reinstate an Obama-era rail safety rule aimed at expanding the use of better braking technology," reportedThe Lever last week.

"We seek an assurance that the department will provide an expeditious response, albeit long overdue, to our administrative appeal," wrote the groups. "If we do not hear from you with a timeline for such a response, we will consider taking legal action."

Earthjustice's original appeal of the DOT's braking system decision pertained specifically to trains that carry large amounts of crude oil, while the 150-car Norfolk Southern train that crashed in East Palestine, Ohio was carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride, which has been linked to liver cancer and other cancers.

During a "controlled release" of chemicals that officials began after the crash to prevent an explosion, the burning of the vinyl chloride sent into the air hydrogen chloride, which can irritate the throat, eyes, and skin; and phosgene, a colorless gas that can cause vomiting and difficulty breathing and was used as a weapon during World War I.

"Railroads crisscross the nation running along our waterfronts, bridging our rivers, and rolling through our neighborhoods," said Sean Dixon, executive director at Puget Soundkeeper. "Reliance on century-old braking technology is unacceptably negligent; the DOT cannot continue to delay modernization of this vital aspect of rail safety. Hazardous, flammable cargos of dangerous chemicals and volatile hydrocarbons present an undeniable threat to public health and the environment—a threat that must be mitigated, immediately."

Since the derailment, East Palestine residents—who have been told by officials that it's safe for them to return to their homes following a brief evacuation—have reported nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headaches.

"It is not clear whether the Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals in Ohio would have been covered by DOT's repealed brake system requirement," said Earthjustice. "What is clear, however, is that the agency has failed to require up-to-date, modern brake systems for most trains carrying explosively toxic materials."

As Common Dreams reported Thursday, another train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed outside Detroit. The train was carrying liquid chlorine, but officials said the substance was not near the cars that overturned and a railroad representative told a local NBC affiliate that no hazardous materials were spilled.

"It's troubling that the revised safety regulations clearly do not go far enough to prevent such disasters, and the government's ability to respond and provide essential disclosures to the community is far from adequate," said Devorah Ancel, senior attorney at the Sierra Club. "The Biden administration must do everything in its power to protect the people in East Palestine and other rail-adjacent communities from the devastating impacts of train accidents and explosions."

Earthjustice demanded that Buttigieg take immediate action instead of waiting for yet another accident to endanger a community, where attorney Kristen Boyles noted residents have no control over what chemicals trains that pass through are carrying or what safety measures railroad companies are taking.

"It should not take another exploding train to get DOT's attention," said Boyles. "Communities can't keep trains out, can't get safety measures, can't know what trains are carrying, and yet are left with the human health and environmental problems when there's an accident."

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