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Opinion
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
 

In Our View: Biden, Congress must aim to improve rail safety

The Columbian
Published: February 17, 2023, 6:03am

A train derailment two weeks ago in Ohio should grab the attention of Clark County residents, expose the carelessness of the Trump administration, and lead the Biden administration and Congress to seek improvements to rail safety.

On Feb. 3, a 150-car train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. The train included cars carrying vinyl chloride, a potentially explosive colorless gas, resulting in the evacuation of about 5,000 nearby residents.

Three days later, workers blew holes in five railway cars, allowing for a controlled burn of vinyl chloride, which released toxic chemicals into the air. That has led to concerns about soil, air and water contamination, as well as long-term health effects. Some residents have reported strange odors, burning eyes and sick animals.

The reason for local interest is self-evident. Dozens of unit freight trains travel through the Columbia River Gorge each day and then near populated areas in Washougal, Camas and Vancouver. Those trains are destined for the Port of Vancouver or traveling through the city before turning north.

Although a proposed oil terminal at the port was rejected in 2018, oil trains continue to move through our area on the way to other destinations. So do trains carrying other hazards.

Details about the Ohio derailment still are being uncovered, but industry experts say a 2017 decision by the Trump administration contributed to its severity.

In 2013, a derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and required all but three downtown buildings to be demolished because they were unstable. And in 2014, a derailment in Casselton, N.D., spilled nearly 500,000 gallons of crude oil.

With growing concerns about the safety of freight trains, the Obama administration made it a requirement for trains carrying hazardous flammable materials to have electronically controlled pneumatic brakes installed by 2023. The brakes are applied simultaneously across a train rather than car-by-car, enhancing the stopping ability.

The railroad industry opposed the rule, arguing that ECP brakes were too expensive to install. In 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the rule, saying the costs outweighed the benefits.

Following the Ohio derailment, Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration, told USA Today: “ECP brakes would have avoided that monster pileup behind the derailed car. In fact, depending on when the crew got the (error) notice from the wayside detector, applying the ECP brakes would have stopped everything very quickly.”

Industry experts also say that lobbying against regulations, increasing train lengths, reducing inspection times and cutting railroad workforce — all efforts to improve competitiveness against trucking companies — have made trains less safe.

Notably, the Biden administration has not sought to reinstate the rule requiring electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, an oversight that demands correction. But it also points out the need for changes to the regulatory state.

Business leaders and the public are weary of the confusion and the regulatory whiplash that comes from one administration to the next. The issue of train safety and guidelines to protect the public should be subject to rigorous debate and codified by Congress, rather than left to the whims of whoever is in the White House.

After all, a lack of safety can alter the lives of Americans when they least expect it.

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