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U.S. urges rail industry, Congress to boost safety measures after toxic derailment

Travelers face potential delays ahead of Thanksgiving

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) - U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday urged major railroads and Congress to take significant steps to boost train safety and said he would pursue new regulations without action by lawmakers after a toxic derailment in Ohio.

"This represents an important moment to redouble our efforts to make this far less likely to happen again," Buttigieg told reporters ahead of the announcement, calling on Congress to "untie our hands so that we can do more."

The Biden administration has faced sharp criticism from many Republicans for its response to the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio of a Norfolk Southern operated train loaded with toxic chemicals.

The accident caused a fire and sent a cloud of smoke over the town, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate while railroad crews drained and burned off chemicals.

No fatalities or injuries have been reported, but residents have demanded answers about potential health risks. The Biden administration said on Friday it was stepping up its efforts as two congressional committees investigate.

Buttigieg told reporters he wants major rail companies to adopt safer tank cars by 2025, rather than 2029 as required under a law passed in 2015.

He also called on them join a whistleblower protection program, boost hazardous shipment notifications to state emergency response teams and provide paid sick leave saying "a healthy and well-supported workforce is a safer workforce."

Buttigieg said he planned to pursue new regulations to boost rail safety "to the extent possible" under current law and would initiate additional focused inspection programs.

He wrote to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Sunday highlighting prior aggressive industry lobbying to weaken efforts to impose new safety requirements.

Norfolk Southern said it had established an initial $1 million community support fund and distributed $3.4 million in direct financial assistance to more than 2,200 families to cover evacuation costs. "We are going to do the right things to help East Palestine recover and thrive again," Shaw said.

Separately, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan will visit East Palestine for the second time in less than a week on Tuesday and will announce additional health and safety measures. Buttigieg said "when the time is right" he also plans to visit East Palestine.

Buttigieg wants Congress to make it easier to impose new train safety regulations and increase U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) fines for violating safety regulations from the current maximum $225,455 at least ten-fold.

"For a multi-billion rail company posting profits in the billions ever year, that is just not enough to have an adequate deterrent effect," he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the derailment and USDOT said it would use the probe results "to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, while pushing for rail safety initiatives in the more immediate future."

The rail industry says 99.9% of all hazmat shipments reach their destination without incident and hazmat accident rate has declined by 55% since 2012.

Some rail safety requirements were withdrawn under President Donald Trump. Some Republican critics of the East Palestine response who previously opposed rail regulations have now expressed openness to new rules.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Jamie Freed)