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Senate gets bipartisan rail safety bill after Ohio derailment

Measure would establish new safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials

A video screenshot released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows the site of a derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.
A video screenshot released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows the site of a derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio. (Getty Images)

Bipartisan legislation that would establish new safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials was introduced Wednesday by Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train in their state last month.

The roughly 150-car train that derailed on Feb. 3 included 20 carloads of hazardous materials such as liquid vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes and has been linked to increased risk of cancer. The derailment affected about 50 cars, according to the EPA.

The initial fire from the accident burned for days, but the substance soon became unstable and threatened to explode. Government officials evacuated the surrounding area and Norfolk Southern performed a controlled burn of the chemicals on Feb. 6, clouding the community with thick, black smoke for days.

The vinyl chloride cargo, however, did not meet the federal government’s classification as a “high-hazard flammable train,” meaning the company was not required to inform state officials about the chemicals the cars contained.

A group of House Democrats, including Reps. Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania and Ro Khanna of California, on Tuesday introduced the first bill in response to the derailment, a measure that would broaden the definition of a “high-hazard flammable train.”

The Senate bill introduced Wednesday was notable for its bipartisan support. In addition to Brown and Vance, additional co-sponsors included Democrats Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri.

Mandatory two-person crews and funding for updated rail cars are among the provisions of the draft Senate bill, according to a summary.

“It shouldn’t take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve — not corporations like Norfolk Southern,” Brown said in a news release. “Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine and Steubenville and Sandusky.”

Specifically, the bill would direct the Transportation Department to establish new safety regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials that are not classified as a “high-hazard flammable train,” which would include requirements like notifying states when they are passing through, limiting train length and restricting speeds.

In response to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report on the derailment found crew members were alerted to an overheated wheel bearing, the bill would also require trains carrying hazardous materials to be scanned by heat detectors every 10 miles and direct DOT to update its inspection regulations.

Fines

The legislation would require that all trains have a minimum of two crew members aboard — a rule that Norfolk Southern has lobbied against in the past — and would increase the maximum fine that DOT can issue a rail company for safety violations from  $225,000 to 1 percent of a railroad’s annual operating income. 

Norfolk Southern reported a record operating income in 2022 of $4.8 billion. Under this bill, it would be liable for up to $48 million in fines.

The measure would also appropriate a total of $22 million to the Federal Railroad Administration for research and grants for electronic detectors and $5 million for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to develop safer tank cars, valves and other safety features.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York praised the legislation, saying in his opening Senate floor remarks on Wednesday that it is “as smart as it is necessary” and would include new safety protocols for train operations and transportation of hazardous materials, as well as fines for reckless behavior.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also welcomed the legislation, saying in a tweet that he “applauds the swift bipartisan action” to “advance common-sense measures.” Buttigieg had called on Congress to take action on rail safety regulations last week as part of his response plan to the derailment. 

A Norfolk Southern spokesperson said in response to the Senate legislation that the rail industry “needs to learn as much as we can from East Palestine” and added that it has committed to working with industry to develop practices and technologies to prevent future accidents like this.

The legislation comes a day after EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan made his third visit to the East Palestine accident site to reassure residents that the agency will continue to hold the railroad accountable, promising to make it pay “triple the cost” if it fails to perform cleanup actions according to EPA procedures. 

“In no way, shape, form or fashion would Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they’ve created,” Regan said. “For now, we will continue to work day by day to earn the trust of this community and reassure this community that when the cameras leave, we will still be here — however long it takes.”

Regan announced that Norfolk Southern will submit a work plan outlining how it will clean up the chemicals, although he reiterated that the EPA’s air and water testing “has not yielded any adverse health impacts at this time” and that the agency is testing for “all toxic chemicals.”

EPA has authority to deny Norfolk Southern’s work plan if it finds it insufficient, Regan said, and he expects it to include a high level of detail. 

“The work plan will outline every single necessary step to [address] the environmental damage caused by the derailment. No detail will be overlooked,” he said, adding that the work plan will be finalized in the next few days. 

Avery Roe contributed to this report.

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