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White House stumps for rail safety measure ahead of Biden visit to East Palestine

Increased fines for accidents, crew requirements among the provisions

Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio,  speaks during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday, January 11, 2024.
Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, speaks during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday, January 11, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The White House said President Joe Biden will visit East Palestine, Ohio, sometime in February, about a year since a Norfolk Southern Corp. train derailed in the village, spilling hazardous chemicals that contaminated surrounding air, soil and water.

In conjunction with the debut visit, for which officials have not set a date, the administration is urging Congress to pass rail safety legislation, which officials said Wednesday on a call with reporters is key to preventing a similar accident.

“We’ve done our part at the DOT, we are pressing industry to do their part, Congress needs to act as well,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeg said on a call with reporters. “Any congressional leader of any party who is serious about railroad safety should support funding for railroad safety inspections … and should support the Railway Safety Act.”

The administration lauded its response efforts in the year since the Feb. 3, 2023, derailment.

The EPA was on the scene within hours of the accident, officials said, followed by the Transportation and Health and Human Services departments. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern in March. Biden issued an executive order in September that officials said holds Norfolk Southern accountable for the accident and ensures federal assistance for affected communities.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said on the call that the agency has excavated more than 176,000 tons of contaminated soil from the community, shipped more than 43 million gallons of wastewater off site, and collected more than 115 million air monitoring data points.

Rail bill

Ohio lawmakers in Congress introduced legislation aimed at improving rail safety in the House and the Senate following the derailment, including provisions to increase fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers and require railroads to operate with at least two-person crews.

Although it seemed the Senate bill was likely to move before the end of last year, Ohio Sens. J.D. Vance, a Republican, and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, said they haven’t been able to move it to the floor due to timing constraints. Vance, who has defended the bill against GOP criticisms that it would give DOT too much power over railroads, says he has collected enough Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold to speed up consideration.

In the House, though, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., has said he intends to wait for the National Transportation Safety Board investigation report of the accident to come out before the panel takes up the bill.

Brown, meanwhile, said the rail safety bill has stalled because of the railroad lobby. According to OpenSecrets data, Norfolk Southern spent $2.1 million on federal lobbying last year, up from $1.6 million in 2022.

“[Norfolk Southern] continues to oppose this rail safety bill,” Brown said in an interview. “There’s a path forward [on the bill], we’re going to get it scheduled. … It hasn’t happened because of the railroad, you know the railroad lobby has been powerful for 100 years.”

Buttigieg also noted that influence, saying “in the past, there have been times when Congress stood up against the railroad lobby … they should do that now.”

A Norfolk Southern spokesperson said in an email that it “supports legislation to enhance the safety of the freight rail industry,” including provisions that would provide for industry-funded training for first responders, enforce stricter standards for tank car designs and accelerate the phaseout of older tank cars.

“There are other aspects of the proposed legislation that we support in principle,” the spokesperson said. “Establishing performance standards, maintenance standards, and alert thresholds for safety sensors is one example.”

‘Too little too late’?

But in the year since the derailment, there’s still a wariness in East Palestine over the response.

Lawmakers in Congress and East Palestine community members have criticized Biden for waiting so long to visit the site — even after former President Donald Trump made an appearance a few weeks after the accident. Some community members also remain unsatisfied with EPA’s response efforts, claiming they feel the agency is ignoring their reports of potential exposure symptoms and lingering chemical smells.

[Related: East Palestine residents’ distrust grows in year since derailment]

“Biden had promised to visit and he still has not, there’s a lot of growing contention over that,” Hilary Flint, a founder of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment, a local group formed to represent affected residents, said in an interview earlier this month. “People are saying, ‘You haven’t done anything to help, you actually haven’t even come and talked to anyone, you haven’t visited.’ … There’s a complete mistrust of government right now.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that Biden was waiting until “the time was right” to visit East Palestine.

“The president had always said that he would go when it is most helpful to the community,” she said. “We got an invitation from the mayor and community leaders to come very, very recently and so we are working with them to figure out the best time to do that.”

Vance said in an interview that much of the Biden administration’s response to the derailment has been “too little, too late.”

He and Brown have urged the administration to consider declaring a public health emergency and make indoor air testing available. Biden in his executive order directed the Department of Health and Human Services to monitor medical conditions and decide whether to issue an emergency, but Vance said earlier this month that EPA seems “dead set” against indoor air testing.

Brown did not comment on the Biden administration’s response to the derailment, noting only he has visited the village eight times himself.

Senior White House officials said Wednesday that they are still assessing the unmet needs of the community, which could include long-term physical, mental and emotional health. They added that Norfolk Southern will create a long-term monitoring plan that will address such needs.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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