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News / Northwest

Rail-safety bill with stricter rules passes out of Senate committee

By Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times
Published: May 10, 2023, 6:52pm

SEATTLE — The Railway Safety Act of 2023, a batch of regulations motivated by this winter’s conflagration in East Palestine, Ohio, passed out of committee Wednesday and is on its way to a full Senate vote.

The bipartisan bill would require at least one engineer and one conductor per train, stronger inspections of railcars carrying hazardous materials, “hotbox detectors” within the tracks to locate overheating train wheels, and compensation for local firefighters, according to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

“In my home state, our communities are all too familiar with this issue,” Cantwell said. “Derailments of trains operated by Class I railroads have doubled in the past 10 years, and this year alone we’ve already seen one that leaked diesel into a sensitive ecosystem in Padilla Bay, along the Swinomish tribal reservation. People should not have to worry about what’s being transported through their communities.”

Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, said the American Chemistry Council and even former President Donald Trump endorsed safety legislation.

“Yes, it may make rail transportation a little bit more expensive, but it’s going to make rail transportation a little bit more expensive in the service of safety. Because let’s be honest, we have allowed the rail industry to socialize the risk of their business while privatizing the rewards,” Vance said.

The East Palestine community will deal with the aftermath of the toxic train derailment for decades, he said, including mental and physical health costs, economic damage and loss of home and property values.

“The least we can do is make it less likely that the next East Palestine happens in our communities,” he said.

Thirty-eight railcars in a Norfolk Southern train left the tracks the night of Feb. 3, of which 11 contained hazardous chemicals including vinyl chloride, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators. Several burst into flames and spilled toxins into a tributary of the Ohio River, killing an estimated 3,500 fish. About 2,000 residents evacuated and no immediate injuries were reported, the NTSB said. This week Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, promised homeowners would be compensated for losses in property value.

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The train approaching East Palestine passed three hotbox detection systems that detected a failed wheel bearing, but “Norfolk Southern’s company policy did not require the crew to stop the train until it was too late,” a committee statement said.

The national rail-safety bill would require detectors to be spaced an average of 15 miles apart, compared to the current 25-mile voluntary standard. Maximum $100,000 penalties for hazmat safety violations would increase to $10 million.

The derailment in Washington state early March 16 involving a BNSF train near oil refineries in Anacortes spilled 3,100 gallons of diesel into the soil. In late March, a federal judge ruled that BNSF Railway trespassed on Swinomish lands by increasing its shipments of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota without the tribe’s permission.

Cleanup crews pumped out some 3,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater, removed more than 1,200 cubic yards of contaminated soil and installed groundwater wells to monitor “migration of diesel” from the spill site.

A 2016 oil train derailment caused a fire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. Another occurred in 2021 in Whatcom County, and is under FBI investigation; a railway union official blamed that incident on sabotage, KUOW reported.

During the Wednesday hearing Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, objected that the act would hand power to “overzealous Biden bureaucrats” and “make it much easier for this administration to restrict the transportation of coal, of oil, of natural gas and of ethanol” in pursuit of what Cruz describes as a radical green agenda. Higher costs would divert cargoes to trucks, which spilled hazardous materials 23,000 times a year compared to 355 hazmat spills from trains, he said.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, objected to the two-person crew mandate, which she said inserts Congress into union bargaining. Lummis said shippers in her state are already under stress from railroad crew shortages that delay cargo pickups.

Cruz warned the committee it should loosen mandates if members hope to move a railroad-safety law through Congress.

No date is scheduled for a full Senate vote. Among other factors, members will be arguing over a looming debt default as early as June 1.