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Would better regulations and equipment mandates have prevented the Ohio rail disaster?

Frequent derailments may also signal a need for more rapid deployment of infrastructure investment.

Derailed white train cars in front of the woods.
Norfolk Southern train derails in Michigan.
Nick Hagen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In the aftermath of the train derailment and hazardous chemical spill that happened on the evening of February 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, questions linger about the cause of the accident and officials continue to lay blame on one another. While residents worry about the safety of the air and water as they return to their homes, questions about regulations and infrastructure funding linger.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Railroad Association are launching an investigation but it could take months — or even years — for officials to determine what caused the accident. Still, the NTSB has promised it will deliver a preliminary report of its investigation within two weeks. Surveillance footage seemed to capture video of the train’s wheel bearing overheating almost 20 miles away from where the train went off the tracks.

As Vox’s Umair Irfan explained: “Rail workers, government officials, and industry analysts have long warned that such disasters are an expected consequence of an industry that has aggressively cut costs, slashed its workforce, and resisted regulation for years.”

Since returning to East Palestine on February 8, residents have reported symptoms including nausea, headaches, and rashes. At a recent town hall, community members demanded answers to questions about the long-term health impacts of exposure to the chemicals. Norfolk Southern representatives weren’t in attendance for that meeting but CEO Alan Shaw did meet with town officials on Saturday. “We know we will be judged by our actions, and we are taking this accountability and responsibility very seriously,” Shaw said in a prepared statement.

This follows another statement from Norfolk Southern on Friday that they are “committed to coordinating the cleanup project and paying for its associated costs.”

Despite assurances from EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Governor Mike DeWine, it’s unclear if the air and water are safe because air quality monitors lack the sensitivity to detect low-level particles. Even more concerning, Delphine Farmer, a chemist at Colorado State University told Vox’s Benji Jones, is that scientists don’t really know what level of exposure is safe over the long term.

Governor DeWine has said water is safe, but encouraged people with wells to drink bottled water. So far, residents have filed at least six class action lawsuits against the rail operator.

Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg blamed the Trump administration for rolling back an Obama-era rule that required operators carrying hazardous chemicals to employ better breaking technology. His statements came as Republicans claim that Buttigieg’s department and the Biden administration have been dragging their feet.

“We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation (like the braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015), but we are using the powers we do have to keep people safe,” Buttigieg said Tuesday.

Even Democrats are calling for a more robust response. While noting the potential for long-term health effects from the spilled chemicals, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) urged more action. “We need Congressional inquiry and direct action from Secretary Buttigieg to address this tragedy,” Omar tweeted.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wrote a letter on Thursday to President Biden calling for Buttigieg’s resignation. “The circumstances leading up to the derailment point to a clear lack of oversight and demand engagement by our nation’s top transportation official,” Rubio wrote.

On Friday, the White House stood behind its response to the crisis, stating that a team from the EPA arrived within hours of the derailment and that the Department of Transportation was quickly on the ground as well and was committed to sending additional assistance.

“Today, in response to Governor DeWine’s and the Ohio congressional delegation’s request on February 16 for additional federal public health support, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced they are deploying a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump, who has already announced plans to run for president in 2024, told Fox News that he will be visiting East Palestine on Wednesday to speak with residents.

What penalties could Norfolk Southern face and would better regulations have helped?

The White House is weighing whether to file civil lawsuits or impose fines on Norfolk Southern to make sure the rail operator makes good on its promise to pay for the cleanup costs. Experts, however, don’t think fines will encourage wider changes to the rail industry.

“[Railroad companies] have an army of lawyers that would fight tooth and nail to reduce any penalties,” Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC said. “That’s why I say punishment and fines won’t force them to become better and safer,” Meshkati added that encouraging a culture shift within the boards of these companies is what is needed.

Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), told The Lever that existing safety measures could’ve lessened the impact of the disaster if they had been mandated. Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) breaks, which Norfolk Southern had previously promoted as having “the potential to reduce train stopping distances by as much as 60 percent over conventional air brake systems,” were later heavily lobbied against by Norfolk Southern’s own lobbyists.

“Would ECP brakes have reduced the severity of this accident? Yes,” Ditmeyer said. “The railroads will test new features. But once they are told they have to do it… they don’t want to spend the money.”

Norfolk Southern recently had also been lobbying against minimum crew rules, which would have mandated each train have two crew members, something federal regulators have argued would help reduce the severity of derailments and other accidents.

Will more funding for infrastructure solve the issue?

While it’s unclear at this moment if the cause lies with equipment failure of the train itself or the track it was traveling on, according to an article from 2015 by Scientific American, broken or degraded tracks are the most common cause of train derailments, accounting for as much as 15 percent of all derailments.

And while the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package allocates $66 billion to enhancements to the US rail system — including $2 million for research into the impacts of longer trains on derailments — followed by a smaller investment in June 2022 by the Biden Administration which awarded $368 million for rail improvement projects, it could take years for the improvements to filter out.

Still, the need for urgency is apparent, as between 1990 and 2021, there were an average of nearly 2,000 train derailments per year, according to federal data. While just 10 percent of railroad derailments involved hazardous materials, according to a USA Today analysis there has been a 36 percent increase in hazardous materials violations caught during inspections over the past five years.

The thought of trains continuing to haul dangerous chemicals — over 2 million carloads in 2021 — through American backyards might be hard to stomach, but it continues to be safer and more cost-efficient than transport by air or road.

However, without significant changes to both regulations and infrastructure, incidents like the one that happened in East Palestine will keep occurring. Indeed, that derailment isn’t even the most recent — on Wednesday, a freight train went off the tracks in Michigan. Luckily, the car carrying hazardous materials wasn’t derailed.

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