The train derailment last month in East Palestine, Ohio, has rightly spurred closer examination of the rules and regulations governing railroads and how hazardous waste is transported.
Although no one was injured or killed in the crash, it was an environmental disaster and steps must be taken to reduce the likelihood of a similar event.
Several of the derailed train cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, and caught fire. Concerned about the possibility of an explosion, authorities later executed a controlled burn, sending a plume of black smoke into the sky.
Residents were temporarily evacuated from the surrounding area, and although they have been allowed to return, many have complained of lingering odors, illness and other problems. There have been reports of fish kills in local waterways and other environmental damage.
Despite the assurances of officials that the water from the municipal supply is safe, residents are quite reasonably worried about the long-term impact to both their health and the local environment.
Even though cleanup is underway — some of the contaminated material is being disposed of at Ross Incineration Services in Eaton Township — the effort will be long. Monitoring will be necessary for years to come. All of this will be expensive, and the train’s operator, Norfolk Southern, should bear the brunt of those costs.
As seems to be the case with most things these days, the aftermath of the crash has featured partisan vitriol with folks on both sides of the aisle trying to score political points. That’s disappointing and distracts from the important work that remains to be done in East Palestine and beyond.
We were pleased, however, to see a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate this week. If passed, it would lead to meaningful reform to make the nation’s railways, including those that run through Lorain County, safer. Both of Ohio’s senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican J.D. Vance, are among the sponsors.
The bill would increase inspections and limit the length of freight trains, which have grown increasingly long in recent years, sometimes stretching over two miles. The train that crashed in East Palestine was around 1.7 miles long.
Although the derailed train had three crew members, the industry is moving toward a single person operating a train, The Associated Press reported. The bill would mandate two-person crews, which seems far safer.
Railroads also would be required to inform state emergency officials of hazardous materials being transported on trains. The state must make certain that local authorities are notified as well. Doing so would provide crucial information to first responders so they know what they’re dealing with in the event of a problem.
Requiring such information to be passed along to the authorities not only makes sense, railroads have done it in the past.
Avon Lake Law Director Gary Ebert helped negotiate a deal with the railroads while he held the same position in Bay Village in 1998. He said Norfolk Southern agreed to develop software that would notify first responders about hazardous materials being transported through Bay Village and several other Cuyahoga County communities. He said the requirement lapsed in 2008.
“If it worked then, obviously it can work now,” Ebert said.
The bill would increase registration fees paid by railroads companies to fund expanded HAZMAT training grants for local first responders.
Another provision would require that trains carrying hazardous waste be scanned by hotbox detectors every 10 miles. The railroads currently decide where to place the detectors, which monitor for overheating train components.
A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board found that the derailment in East Palestine was caused by overheated bearings on one of the cars. The crew was trying to stop the train after being alerted to the problem just before it derailed.
The bill also would increase fines for safety violations, among numerous other changes.
Few people will be surprised to learn that the railroads are not on board with the bill.
A spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads told the AP that the bill contained a “wish list” and that some of its proposals “would not prevent a similar accident in the future.”
Perhaps, but as the trade group said, 99.9% of hazardous materials shipments reach their destinations safely. That means 0.1% don’t. When there are problems, the consequences, as we’ve seen in East Palestine, can be devastating.
The bill would help prevent future disasters, and Congress should move swiftly to make it law.
An editorial from the Elyria Chronicle.