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Two House Democrats proposed a measure on Tuesday that would tighten regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials in response to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last month.
Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Chris Deluzio (Pa.) introduced the Decreasing Emergency Railroad Accident Instances Locally (DERAIL) Act after residents of their states were left worried about their safety and livelihoods.
The DERAIL Act (pdf) aims to broaden the definition of the “high-hazard flammable train” (HHFT) classification for trains carrying hazardous materials in a bid to ensure rail carriers take necessary safety precautions.
The legislation proposes to add Class 2 flammable gases to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) HHFT definition (pdf) and gives the Secretary of Transportation the authority to add other materials as necessary for safety.
The DOT’s definition of an HHFT would also be broadened to include a train with a single rail car carrying hazardous material, whereas the current definition requires at least 20 consecutive cars to qualify, or 35 cars in total.
The proposed regulations would include slower speeds, newer rail cars, and better braking equipment when transporting hazardous materials across the country.
Further, rail carriers would also be required to report to the National Response Center, state officials, and local officials within 24 hours after a train carrying toxic chemicals derails.
“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. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation to expand our safety regulations and help prevent against this type of disaster in the future.”
The Norfolk Southern derailment occurred near the Ohio-Pennsylvannia border. Deluzio said that his constituents who live, work, and play in Beaver County, Pennsylvania—near the crash site—reported concerns about their health, livelihoods, air, water, and soil.
“They want answers, accountability, and assurance that something like this will never happen again,” Deluzio said.
Deluzio called for tighter regulations of the railroads, saying they have “prioritized profit ahead of public safety and their workers” for too long.
Bill Expands the Definition of High-Hazard Flammable Train
The Norfolk Southern train carried 11 tank cars with hazardous chemicals. Among these were five tank cars containing vinyl chloride, a Class 2 flammable gas, and two tank cars with benzene residue, a Class 3 flammable liquid.
The pair of Democrats highlighted that despite carrying highly flammable materials in several tank cars, the train was not classified as an HHFT according to current regulations, meaning it was not subject to stricter safety regulations.
“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,” Deluzio said.
Days after the train derailed on Feb. 3, crews burned off the toxic chemicals in a “controlled release” to avoid an explosion. These included the cancer-causing vinyl chloride transported in the train cars.
The “controlled release” resulted in a plume of black smoke, leading to concerns about the environmental impact, including the air, land, and water quality in the immediate vicinity.
Locals were urged to evacuate their homes during the burn-off, but some people reported health reactions like rashes, nausea, and headaches upon return. Some also reported that the area’s animals, including livestock, were getting sick or dying.
Officials have stated that air testing in the village and hundreds of homes has not found worrying levels of contaminants, and the state has confirmed that the local municipal drinking water system is safe. However, despite these assurances, many residents remain concerned about their exposure and the potential impact on the area.
The DERAIL Act has garnered support from Greg Hynes, the national legislative director of SMART Transportation Division, the union representing the rail workers on the train that derailed, and David Masur, the executive director of PennEnvironment.
Masur said the legislation would take reasonable and crucial measures to enhance reporting and increase public knowledge of dangerous and volatile materials.
“As the derailment and explosion in East Palestine, Ohio showed us, 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,” Masur said.
Toxic Waste Removal
EPA officials said Monday that contaminated waste from the derailment would be taken to an incinerator in Grafton, Ohio, and a landfill in Roachdale, Indiana, both hundreds of miles away.
According to Debra Shore, an EPA regional administrator, sufficient certified facilities are now available to dispose of all waste from the site. The remaining liquid waste is going to a Vickery, Ohio, facility, while Norfolk Southern is shipping solid waste to an East Liverpool, Ohio, incinerator.
Critical of the plan, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said he wasn’t aware that the EPA intended to move the contaminated waste across the entirety of his state. He claimed the EPA hadn’t informed him of the plan.
The CEO of Norfolk Southern, which faces several lawsuits in the wake of the crash, has said in a letter to local residents that the company would stay to clean up the spill. The EPA ordered the railroad to clean up the chemicals from the water and soil around the train crash site.
Jack Phillips contributed to this report.