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White House urging higher fines for train safety violations

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is calling on congressional Republicans to increase the fines levied on rail companies for safety violations, as a fiery Feb. 3 train derailment in Ohio has become a political lightning rod.

There are still safety and health concerns among residents of East Palestine after dozens of train cars being pulled by Norfolk Southern went off the tracks and released chemicals into the area. The incident has now evolved into a feud between Democrats and Republicans.

“The test will be whether Republicans work with the Biden-Harris administration to restore safety protections and pass legislation increasing fines on rail companies when they cause accidents like this,” said White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates. “Do they stand with us and communities like East Palestine or are they still owned by the rail lobby?”

Under current law, the White House said, the highest fine that can be charged to companies for violations involving the transportation of hazardous materials is $225,455. That's less than 1% of Norfolk Southern's profits last year of $3.27 billion.

Former President Donald Trump, who is seeking the 2024 GOP nomination, went to the village on Wednesday and said the community has been met with “indifference and betrayal.” Republican lawmakers have criticized President Joe Biden for not going to the site; Biden was in Ukraine and Poland this week.

But his administration is pushing back. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg toured East Palestine on Thursday and said Trump should call for the reversals of deregulation that occurred during his term in the White House.

Trump famously posed in 2017 with a mounds of white paper wrapped in red tape, which he then cut with a pair of scissors. He has argued that trimming regulatory burdens would lead to stronger economic growth.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly defended the administration’s response during Thursday’s briefing, saying “that’s what leadership looks like,” instead of the “political stunts that we’re seeing from the other side.”

She criticized Republicans as “all of the sudden” interested in safety issues after being against regulations.

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Associated Press writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.