In shepherding the Railway Safety Act through her committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell effectively explained the importance of the legislation.
“No community should have to go through the trauma and evacuation and environmental damage that East Palestine had to go through, especially when you can prevent these from happening,” the Washington Democrat said.
In February, a derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, spilled hazardous materials into a ditch that feeds a stream leading to the Ohio River. There were no fatalities, but residents soon reported health effects from the dangerous chemicals, bringing the issue of railroad safety into sharp relief.
Cantwell has helped lead the way on developing congressional action and garnering some bipartisan support. The Railway Safety Act has passed the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which she chairs, and now heads to the full Senate.
Two Republican committee members joined Democrats in forwarding the bill. It likely will need 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster, but six Republicans are counted among the 11 co-sponsors, providing hope that Congress can find common ground on important issues.
Railway safety is, indeed, important in every state, including Washington. An estimated 44 million tons of hazardous material is annually transported by rail in our state. That includes heavily populated areas, as demonstrated by the miles of track running through Clark County, near houses and condominiums and apartment buildings, past restaurants and industrial sites, and along the Columbia River.
It is not difficult to envision the calamity that would ensue from a large derailment. Concerns about rail safety helped build public opposition to a proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver in recent years, but oil trains continue to move through our community on their way to other destinations.
The Railway Safety Act would put a limit of 50 mph on oil trains of 20 or more tank cars; current law places the limit on 35-car trains. It also would better reimburse local fire departments that are the first responders to a derailment, strengthen emergency response plans, set standards for trackside safety detectors, and establish staffing minimums for trains operated by major railroads.
Perhaps most important, the legislation would improve accountability for rail companies that violate safety rules. The maximum civil penalty would be increased from $100,000 to $10 million, putting some bite into the legislation rather than providing for a toothless gesture.
In the process, the bill has highlighted ongoing debates about regulations vs. the needs of commerce. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the ranking member of the commerce committee, opposed the act, saying it would drive up costs for railroad companies and make it easier for the federal government to limit the shipment of fossil fuels.
Committee member Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, countered by saying, “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.”
That seems like a trade that is beneficial for the public, which should be the driving force behind congressional interests.
Rail safety is one of those things that draws public attention only after a disaster. By then, it is too late. No amount of regulations is fool-proof, but with proper oversight derailments are largely preventable.