As residents of East Palestine, Ohio prepared for a Wednesday night town hall meeting about the recent derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials, U.S. senators from the state and neighboring Pennsylvania called for federal action.
Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.), and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) sent letters to a pair of federal agencies sounding the alarm about the safety of East Palestine residents and communities at risk from future derailments.
In their letters to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy, the senators wrote that "while we are grateful no injuries or fatalities resulted directly from the derailment, we are deeply concerned about the release of hazardous materials into the air and groundwater."
After noting that East Palestine residents had to leave the area due to the derailment, fire, and "controlled release" of vinyl chloride—just one of the hazardous materials the train was transporting—the senators said, "No American family should be forced to face the horror of fleeing their homes because hazardous materials have spilled or caught fire in their community."
While praising the EPA's initial response to the disaster, in coordination with state and local entities, the senators also asked the agency to keep monitoring the region, and to use its authority under federal law "to ensure that Norfolk Southern pays for the cleanup of these hazardous materials, as well as compensates residents and affected businesses as required."
"Norfolk Southern has a responsibility to these first responders and the workers that put their lives on the line to keep the community safe by fighting fires, going door to door to evacuate residents, and working on getting the derailed train, hazardous material, and contaminated water and soil removed from the immediate area," they wrote to Regan.
The senators also sent the EPA administrator a series of questions and requested a response by February 24.
In their letter to Homendy, the federal lawmakers lauded the work of the NTSB staff to "collect perishable evidence quickly from the site of the derailment" and provide updates about the initial stages of the agency's investigation into the incident.
"The NTSB's independent investigation to determine probable causes of the East Palestine derailment is critical to preventing future derailments involving hazardous materials in Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as across the nation," the senators wrote. "We will use NTSB's findings and any pertinent safety recommendations to advance measures that Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation [DOT] can implement to prevent derailments involving hazardous materials."
After stressing that "the NTSB must independently assess all factors and causes that may have contributed to this derailment," they shared concerns from constituents, experts, and railroad workers representatives about high-hazard flammable train definition and safety practices; axle, journal bearing, and railcar inspections; electronically controlled pneumatic brakes; staffing practices; and railcar and track maintenance.
The letter notes that the lawmakers don't expect the NTSB to respond to those concerns unless the probe "determines it appropriate" but asks the board to let them know if it has the budget and resources necessary to investigate and identify "trending factors and causes that may contribute to future derailments involving hazardous materials."
The NTSB letter also states that the senators "will be pressing the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct new analysis and act to improve railroad safety practices and prevent derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials."
The Leverreported last Friday that despite the crisis in Ohio, "Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg's department has not moved to reinstate an Obama-era rail safety rule aimed at expanding the use of better braking technology."
Instead of reviving the rule repealed under former President Donald Trump, the news outlet explained, "transportation regulators have been considering a rail-industry-backed proposal that could weaken existing brake safety rules."
Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, said Tuesday that "now, all eyes are on Secretary Buttigieg."
"Buttigieg should call out the brake rule repeal for the horrendous decision it was, start working to implement a new rule, take Norfolk Southern to task, and push back on corporations deciding how the DOT regulates them," Hauser argued. "Anything short of that only signals to the railroads that this type of incident will be tolerated."