WASHINGTON — Northwest lawmakers are set to play key roles in a bipartisan effort to improve railroad safety in the wake of a high-profile derailment that spewed toxic chemicals in Ohio.
Safety experts hope politics don’t get in the way of good policy that could prevent similar disasters in the future.
After a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed Feb. 3 near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, railroad officials and the two states’ governors opted to burn the chemicals to avoid a potential explosion, forcing residents to evacuate the village of East Palestine and leaving questions about the long-term effects of the toxins.
In the weeks since the train’s cargo went up in smoke, the crash has ignited a different kind of firestorm, with politicians seeking to capitalize on the disaster. Republicans have lambasted the Biden administration for taking weeks to send a high-level official to the derailment site, while Democrats have countered that experts have been on the scene and accused the GOP of weakening rail safety rules during the Trump administration.
“Everybody bears some responsibility,” said Magdy Elsibaie, associate director of rail transport technology and safety at the University of Maryland. “Every time there is a derailment, we failed collectively.”
But Elsibaie — who led research and development at the Federal Railroad Administration from 1995 to 2009, then oversaw hazardous materials safety at the U.S. Department of Transportation until 2016 — cautioned against politicizing the response to the East Palestine derailment.
“Having political appointees come in and make decisions for safety, overriding what the career staff has been doing, I’m critical of that,” he said. “Certainly, safety action should not be subject to political orientation or political winds.”
Despite the cloud of partisan politics hanging over East Palestine, Ohio’s senators — Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican J.D. Vance — introduced a bipartisan bill on March 1 that would set new requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials. Eleven of the 38 cars that derailed contained hazardous chemicals — including vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make plastics that is linked to cancer — according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB.
Before it can become law, that bill will need to make its way through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The Senate panel’s chair, Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, said she would work toward changes that could improve safety in the Northwest as well.
“The State of Washington’s rail system moves almost 4 million gallons of crude oil daily, a 185 percent increase over the last decade,” Cantwell said in a statement. “I have long championed improving the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail, and I have told Sen. Brown that I will work with him to move the bill through the Committee process.”
Washington state has seen multiple oil trains derail in recent years, including a train that burst into flames in Whatcom County after carrying oil from North Dakota via Spokane in December 2020. Other oil trains derailed in 2014 in Seattle — with no spill — and in 2016 along the Columbia River in Mosier, Ore., spilling 50,000 gallons of crude oil that caught fire.
Rep. Rick Larsen of Everett, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said his panel takes its responsibility to improve rail safety seriously.
“The Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine underscores the need to further improve rail safety,” Larsen said in a statement. “While the specific path forward is still taking shape, there is significant bipartisan momentum for real reforms that will keep communities safe from the kind of unthinkable situation facing residents of East Palestine and the surrounding areas.”
According to the NTSB’s preliminary report, the derailment occurred after a wheel bearing overheated, caught fire and eventually broke. As the train headed toward East Palestine, it passed a series of sensors along the track designed to detect overheating bearings, a common cause of derailments, and warn a train’s crew in time to come to a stop safely.
But after one detector indicated a wheel bearing was starting to overheat, the train didn’t pass another detector for nearly 20 miles. When the crew tried to stop the train, it was too late.
“Had there been a detector earlier, that derailment may not have occurred,” Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB chair, told reporters Feb. 23.
The bipartisan Senate bill is cosponsored by Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman, both Pennsylvania Democrats, and Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri. Among numerous other provisions, it would require rail carriers like Norfolk Southern to notify state officials in advance when they are carrying hazardous materials, require two-person crews on all trains and require sensors at least every 10 miles that can detect overheating wheels.
Russell Quimby, a retired NTSB rail accident investigator who spent 22 years at the agency, said high-profile derailments distract from the fact that railroads are the safest way to transport cargo, including hazardous materials. Such materials usually aren’t transported in large enough volumes to justify building pipelines, he said, and trucking has roughly 10 times more hazmat accidents than rail, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.
“Generally speaking, the railroad industry is extremely safe,” Quimby said. “There need to be new regulations, but that doesn’t necessarily necessitate new legislation.”
He added that the federal rulemaking process, which is led by agencies like the Department of Transportation, can implement regulations with greater precision than Congress often can. On March 3, the DOT announced several steps toward improving rail safety, including Norfolk Southern and the nation’s six other major railroads agreeing to participate in a confidential close-call reporting system — something they had previously refused to do — after pressure from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Quimby said that reporting system is a positive move but warned that lawmakers could let politics influence regulations that are overly broad or not based on evidence.
“Most good safety recommendations aren’t particularly sophisticated or flashy,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that nobody ever thought of until you have an accident like this.”
Elsibaie said that while derailments are rarer in the United States and Canada than in any of part of the world, eliminating them altogether is unrealistic. For that reason, he said, regulators should consider requiring that the integrity of tank cars be improved.
Quimby pointed to another potential contributor to the disaster in Ohio: Aluminum valve covers on three of the derailed tank cars that contained vinyl chloride melted in the heat, raising the risk of a dangerous explosion, the NTSB said in a statement March 3. Steel covers, Quimby said, melt at a much higher temperature and may have withstood the fire.
On Monday, Norfolk Southern announced it would implement several safety measures in response to the NTSB’s preliminary findings from East Palestine, including adding hot-bearing detectors in stretches of track with at least 15 miles between the current sensors.
On March 2, President Joe Biden issued a statement in support of the bipartisan Senate bill and said the government should force railroad companies to improve their safety practices. Elsibaie said there may be a role for new regulations, but the rail industry has strong incentives to improve safety even without government action.
“It’s obviously their bread and butter, to be perceived as safe and to be safe,” he said. “Otherwise, their business will suffer.”
Spokespeople for Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch said the two Idaho Republicans had yet to review the bipartisan legislation and would not take a stance until they had done so.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Patty Murray said the Washington Democrat was “doing everything she can to protect families and communities” in the wake of “an avoidable disaster” in East Palestine.
“She fully supports efforts to improve rail safety and is ready to work with Senators on both sides of the aisle to get something done,” spokeswoman Caitlin Reedy said in a statement. “Her colleagues have worked diligently to ensure this bill addresses the safety failures that contributed to the tragic derailment in East Palestine and Senator Murray looks forward to working with them to move this bill through the legislative process, including providing Senators on the Committee of jurisdiction an opportunity to work toward crafting the strongest legislative guard rails to prevent something like this from ever happening again.”
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers — a Spokane Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose jurisdiction includes the environmental impact of the East Palestine disaster — didn’t respond when asked about her stance on the bill. But on Feb. 27, she sent letters to state environmental protection agencies in Ohio and Pennsylvania asking for details on how they had managed the pollution from the train.
“The recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio has upended the lives of the residents in that community and threatened the surrounding communities in places like Western Pennsylvania,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement with GOP Reps. Bill Johnson of Ohio and John Joyce of Pennsylvania. “The people in these communities deserve full transparency from federal and state environmental protection officials to better understand what happened with this derailment and the extent to which their air, water, and soil has been contaminated.”