Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) speaks in his office
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) speaks in his office on June 23, 2022.
(Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Khanna, Deluzio Unveil 'Derail Act' to Prevent Another Disaster Like East Palestine

"We can't trust giant corporations like Norfolk Southern to keep communities safe out of the goodness of their hearts," said Rep. Chris Deluzio. "They're in it for profits, plain and simple."

Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna of California and Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania introduced legislation Tuesday that would require the U.S. Transportation Department to impose more strict regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials, an effort to prevent disasters like the toxic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio from happening in the future.

"The people in East Palestine and western Pennsylvania are the working-class folks who feel invisible and abandoned by our nation," Khanna said in a statement. "This is a moment where we need political leaders from all parties and from across the country to speak out loudly for better safety regulations and to acknowledge what so many Americans are going through."

If passed, the Decreasing Emergency Railroad Accident Instances Locally (DERAIL) Act would direct the head of the Department of Transportation to "modify the definition of 'high-hazard flammable train' to mean a single train transporting one or more loaded tank cars of a Class 3 flammable liquid or a Class 2 flammable gas and other materials the secretary determines necessary for safety."

Thanks in part to aggressive industry lobbying, the Transportation Department currently defines a high-hazard flammable train as one carrying hazardous materials in at least 20 consecutive cars or 35 total, limiting the number of trains subject to more stringent safety rules.

Deluzio, who represents constituents located just miles from the East Palestine derailment, said in a statement that many people are "worried about their health and livelihoods and whether their air, water, and soil will be safe" after the East Palestine wreck.

"Following this derailment, many of them are worried about their health and livelihoods and whether their air, water, and soil will be safe after this disaster," Deluzio added. "They want answers, accountability, and assurance that something like this will never happen again. For too long, railroads have prioritized profit ahead of public safety and their workers, and it is time to regulate the railroads. This legislation is an important step forward to finally strengthen our rail regulations and improve rail safety in communities like Western Pennsylvania and across America."

As The Lever has reported, the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in eastern Ohio and spilled toxic chemicals—including the flammable carcinogen vinyl chloride—was not being regulated as a "high-hazard flammable train" (HHFT) due to a narrow definition of the category adopted by the Obama administration.

"The Obama administration in 2014 proposed improving safety regulations for trains carrying petroleum and other hazardous materials," The Lever noted earlier this month. "However, after industry pressure, the final measure ended up narrowly focused on the transport of crude oil and exempting trains carrying many other combustible materials."

"Then came 2017," The Lever continued. "After rail industry donors delivered more than $6 million to GOP campaigns, the Trump administration—backed by rail lobbyists and Senate Republicans—rescinded part of that rule aimed at making better braking systems widespread on the nation's rails."

In addition to requiring tougher regulation of trains carrying hazardous substances, Khanna and Deluzio's bill would require rail carriers involved in any potentially toxic derailment to provide the National Response Center, state and local officials, and tribal governments with a list of dangerous materials present on the train no later than 24 hours after the crash.

The House Democrats' legislation comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is facing growing pressure to strengthen lax regulations that are allowing railroad giants like Norfolk Southern to cut corners in pursuit of greater profits—often with dangerous consequences.

More than 1,000 trains derail in the United States each year, according to one estimate. A recent USA Today analysis found that hazardous material violations by rail companies "appear to be climbing," with federal inspectors flagging 36% more infractions over the last five years than they did in the preceding half-decade.

The Norfolk Southern train that crashed in eastern Ohio had a reputation among workers as a serious safety hazard. The train, formally known as 32N but nicknamed "32 Nasty," included around 20 cars carrying hazardous chemicals.

Greg Hynes, the national legislative director of SMART Transportation Division—the union that represents the workers who staffed the derailed Norfolk Southern train—said Tuesday that Khanna and Deluzio's proposal represents "positive action to improve rail safety for Pennsylvania and America."

PennEnvironment executive director David Masur agreed, saying the measure would "take commonsense and important steps to improve reporting and the public's right to know about volatile and hazardous materials rumbling through U.S. communities every day."

"As the derailment and explosion in East Palestine, Ohio showed us," Masur said, "federal laws excluding freight companies from reporting the dangerous and explosive materials that they are carrying have loopholes large enough to drive a train through."

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