Pa. House Dems call on Congress, feds to toughen regs on toxic trains | Monday Morning Coffee

Pennsylvanians and other Americans at risk from the trains ‘deserve better,’ the lawmakers said

By: - March 6, 2023 7:08 am
Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine. (Screenshot from NTSB B-roll recorded Feb. 5, 2023)

Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 5, 2023. (NTSB).

With last month’s fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern train along the Pennsylvania/Ohio border still very much in the news, a coalition of state House Democrats from the greater Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions are calling on Washington to step up its regulation of these toxic trains.

On Friday, Reps. Mandy Steele, of Allegheny County; Rob Matzie, of Beaver County; Tarik Khan, of Philadelphia; Paul Friel, of Chester County; Jim Haddock, of Luzerne County, and Brian Munroe, of Bucks County, began seeking legislative support for a non-binding resolution calling for two actions from policymakers in the nation’s capital.

First, the lawmakers are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review rules, enforced through the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, governing “high-hazard flammable trains” that routinely travel across the nation.

The current rules only cover trains carrying crude oil and other liquid fuels, the lawmakers noted in the memo they sent to their fellow House members. The lawmakers said they want to see regulators “make any necessary changes that would help to provide better protection to the public and environment.”

On Feb, 5, two days after the derailment, hundreds of residents near the site in East Palestine, Ohio — including some in Pennsylvania — were ordered to evacuate while the company performed a controlled release of hazardous materials carried by five rail cars to avoid a possible explosion.

Officials lifted the evacuation order on Feb. 8 and have said that testing indicates no water or air contamination. Residents, however, have complained about feeling sick since returning home, the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish reported.

Even though the derailed Norfolk Southern train carried vinyl chloride and benzene residue, it was not categorized as a high-hazard flammable train, or HHFT, the Capital-Star’s Kim Lyons reported.

The National Transportation Safety Board had recommended that such toxins be included in that definition, the lawmakers noted.

The NTSB also recommended that “trains hauling flammable gases utilize electronically- controlled pneumatic braking systems, which studies have concluded are more reliable than traditional air brakes, such as those used on the Norfolk Southern train,” that derailed last month, the lawmakers wrote.

Photo of the East Palestine train derailment from the U.S. EPA.

The resolution also calls on Congress to pass legislation, cosponsored by U.S. Reps. Chris Deluzio, D-17th District, and Rho Khanna, D-Calif., that also would beef up federal oversight of trains carrying hazardous materials.

The legislation, christened the Decreasing Emergency Railroad Accident Instances Locally Act, or DERAIL ACT, would expand the definition of trains considered to be HHFT. It would add Class 2 flammable gasses to the definition, and authorize the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to add other materials as deemed necessary for safety.

Deluzio, who represents part of Beaver County affected by the derailment, said many are worried about their health and whether their air, water, and soil are now safe.

“They want answers, accountability, and assurance that something like this will never happen again,” Deluzio said in a statement.

“For too long, railroads have prioritized profit ahead of public safety and their workers, and it is time to regulate the railroads. This legislation is an important step forward to finally strengthen our rail regulations and improve rail safety in communities like western Pennsylvania and across America,” the western Pennsylvania lawmaker said.

In addition, the act would lower the threshold for HHFT; instead of a train needing to carry hazardous material in at least 20 consecutive cars or 35 cars total as is the current Department of Transportation requirement, the bill would decrease the number to just one rail car, Lyons reported.

bipartisan bill now before the U.S. Senate, which counts Democratic U.S. Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania, among its backers, also seeks to avert future accidents such as the one in Ohio.

“Residents located throughout the United States, such as those in East Palestine, Ohio, and nearby communities on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, deserve better,” from the federal government, the state House lawmakers wrote.


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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.