Buttigieg urges safety changes after fiery Ohio derailment

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wants the nation’s freight railroads to immediately act to improve safety while regulators try to strengthen safety rules in the wake of a fiery derailment in Ohio that forced evacuations when toxic chemicals were released and burned.

Buttigieg announced a package of reforms Tuesday — two days after he warned the railroad responsible for the derailment, Norfolk Southern, to fulfill its promises to clean up the mess just outside East Palestine, Ohio, and help the town recover. He said the Department of Transportation will hold the railroad accountable for any safety violations that contributed to the Feb. 3 crash near the Pennsylvania border.

“While ensuring the safety of those impacted by this crash is the immediate priority, we also have to recognize that this represents an important moment to redouble our efforts to make this far less likely to happen again in the future," Buttigieg said.

President Joe Biden said on Twitter that the past pattern of railroads resisting safety regulations must change and that Congress should support the effort to improve safety.

“Rail companies have spent millions of dollars to oppose common-sense safety regulations. And it’s worked,” Biden tweeted. “This is more than a train derailment or a toxic waste spill – it’s years of opposition to safety measures coming home to roost.”

Even though government data shows that derailments have declined in recent years, there were still 1,049 of them last year. Most are ordinary and don't cause any major problems, like the derailment in Nebraska on Tuesday morning that toppled more than two dozen Union Pacific railcars, spilled coal and blocked the tracks.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency returned to the town of 4,700 Tuesday along with the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania and Norfolk Southern's CEO. Also on Tuesday, a medical clinic staffed by contamination experts opened to evaluate residents' complaints. State and federal officials have reiterated that their testing of air and water samples doesn't show dangerous levels of any toxins, but some people have complained about constant headaches and irritated eyes as they worry about returning to their homes.

Buttigieg said railroads and tank car owners should accelerate their plan to upgrade the tank cars that haul flammable liquids like crude oil and ethanol by 2025 instead of waiting to comply with the 2029 standard Congress ultimately approved after regulators suggested the earlier deadline. He also said freight railroads should reach more agreements to provide their employees with paid sick time to help prevent fatigue.

Railroad unions have also raised concerns that car inspections are being rushed and preventative maintenance may be getting neglected after widespread job cuts in the industry in recent years that they say have made railroads riskier.

“I do think that there’s a moment to look in the mirror as an entire industry and decide what we can do better,” said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department coalition. “I think the industry by and large has been reluctant to make the types of changes that are needed. They have obviously fought regulations in the past, but I think they are running out of excuses here.”

Jeremy Ferguson, the president of the largest rail union that represents conductors, said railroads' reliance on longer trains and fewer employees since they started adopting this new operating model in 2017 is jeopardizing public safety.

Ferguson said the pursuit of higher profits prompted “rail carriers to abandon fundamentally sound practices for haphazard, inherently dangerous, impetuous movements of freight and locomotives across America's rail system.”

Buttigieg said regulators will try to revive a proposed rule the Trump administration dropped that would have required upgraded, electronically controlled brakes on certain trains filled with flammable liquids that are designated “high-hazardous flammable trains.” The rule was dropped after Congress directed regulators to use a strict cost-benefit analysis to evaluate the rule.

Buttigieg said he'll ask Congress to “untie our hands here” on the braking rule, and regulators may look at expanding which trains are covered by the “high-hazardous” rules that were announced in 2015 after several fiery crude oil train derailments — the worst of which killed 47 people and decimated the Canadian town of Lac Mégantic in 2013. He also said Congress should raise the current $225,455 limit on railroad safety fines at least tenfold to create a better deterrent.

Buttigieg criticized railroads for lobbying against the braking rule and challenging it in court. But railroad safety expert David Clarke, who previously led the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said the industry shouldn’t be criticized too heavily for pushing back against proposed regulations.

“The fact that you couch those in terms of safety makes it seem like it’s, you know, mom, God and apple pie — anything safety related is sacred,” Clarke said. “But the bottom line is companies have to look at the benefits and the cost of any expenditure.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was incredulous when he learned the Norfolk Southern train that derailed didn’t carry that “high-hazardous” designation, meaning that the railroad didn’t have to notify the state about the dangerous chemicals it was carrying.

“This is absurd,” DeWine said. “Congress needs to take a look at how this is handled.”

Regulators and the Association of American Railroads trade group say there are hundreds of pages of other rules railroads must follow when they transport any hazardous chemicals, whether it is the vinyl chloride that has gotten so much attention in this derailment, crude oil, nuclear materials or any of the hundreds of other dangerous chemicals that railroads routinely carry.

It’s not clear whether the “high-hazardous” rules could have prevented this derailment. The National Transportation Safety Board is in the early stages of its investigation, although officials with that agency have said they believe the failure of an axle on one of the railcars not long after the train crew got a warning about a possible mechanical problem caused this crash.

The head of the AAR trade group, Ian Jefferies, said regulators should let the findings of the NTSB investigation — not “politics and speculation” — guide their response and keep the focus for now on supporting East Palestine. He said railroads will address the cause of this accident once it is known.

The Federal Railroad Administration will also work to finalize its proposed rule to require two-person crews that Buttigieg pointed to as one of the Biden administration's main efforts to improve rail safety.

The president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Eddie Hall, said he believes the freight railroads' efforts to cut crews down to one person represent a clear safety threat.

“Railroads in the United States largely self-regulate, and right now, rather than learn from their mistakes and improve oversight and safety, they are going in the opposite direction,” Hall said.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said Tuesday that he has spoken with Buttigieg several times since the derailment and that he's made the same commitment to Buttigieg that he made to the community of East Palestine: The railroad is committed to cleaning up the mess and helping the town rebuild. He acknowledged the railroad could do more to ensure safety because there is always room to do more and said Norfolk Southern will look to make changes once the NTSB investigation is complete.

“It’s clear that our safety culture and our investments in safety were not enough to prevent this accident," Shaw said. "We’re going to learn from it. We’re going to improve. And we’re going to make Norfolk Southern a safer railroad.”

Norfolk Southern has already committed $6.5 million to the community. That is likely just the start, as the EPA made clear Tuesday that Norfolk Southern will be responsible for the cleanup costs, and several lawsuits have already been filed against the railroad.