Six months after East Palestine derailment, Congress deadlocked on new rules for train safety

Aug 2, 2023, 9:10 PM

FILE - Cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East P...

FILE - Cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, continues on Feb. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress responded to the fiery train derailment in eastern Ohio earlier this year with bipartisan alarm, holding a flurry of hearings about the potential for railroad crashes to trigger even larger disasters. Both parties agreed that a legislative response was needed.

Yet six months after life was upended in East Palestine, little has changed.

While President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have praised a railroad safety bill from Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and JD Vance, a Republican, the Senate proposal has also encountered resistance. Top GOP leaders in Congress have been hesitant to support it, and the bill has faced some opposition from the railroad industry, which holds significant sway in Washington.

As a result, it remains an open question whether the derailment that shattered life in East Palestine will become a catalyst for action. And for Republicans, the fight poses a larger test of political identity, caught between their traditional support for industry and their desire to champion voters in rural America.

“These rail lines pass frequently through Republican areas, small towns with a lot of Republican voters,” Vance told The Associated Press. “How can we look them in the eye and say, we’re doing a good job by you? If we choose the railroads over their own interests, we can’t.”

In East Palestine, a village of approximately 5,000 people near the Pennsylvania state line, the railroad has reopened both its tracks in the area but the cleanup continues. Norfolk Southern estimates that its response to the derailment will cost at least $803 million to remove all the hazardous chemicals, help the community and deal with lawsuits and penalties related to the derailment.

But residents still worry about the long-term health effects. Many are looking to Congress to act, hoping it will prevent another community from enduring the trauma, fear and upheaval they have endured.

Jami Wallace, who has lived in East Palestine for 46 years along with her extended family, has helped lead a community group called the Unity Council to represent residents’ concerns and push for government action.

“If our legislators don’t take East Palestine as an example of some of the reforms that need to be in the regulations that need to be put on, you know, the railroad industry, then they’re fools,” Wallace said. “Again, we don’t want to suffer for nothing.”

Rail labor groups say the widespread cuts the industry has made in the name of efficiency in recent years have made railroads riskier, so they believe reforms are needed to reduce the more than 1,000 derailments that happen every year because just one can be disastrous.

“There have been more than 60 high-profile derailments since East Palestine, including multiple in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Montana,” said the Transportation Trades Department coalition that includes all the rail unions. “Through it all, freight rail companies have maintained their fundamental disregard for public safety. Safety is just a buzzword to the railroads.”

Vance, a freshman senator who rose to conservative fame with his 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” said he is counting on a few more Republican senators to back the bill before it comes to a vote. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has already placed the bill at the top of the agenda for the fall.

But both Vance and Brown acknowledge their legislation faces an even steeper climb in the Republican-controlled House. GOP leaders there want to wait until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation of the derailment — which will likely not happen until next year — before taking action. The NTSB in a preliminary report found fault with an overheated wheel bearing.

But a contingent of Ohio House lawmakers, led by Democrat Rep. Emilia Sykes and Republican Rep. Bill Johnson, whose district includes East Palestine, want action now.

“Let’s hit while the iron is hot,” Johnson said.

Both the House and Senate bills would increase fines for safety violations, require more inspections and increase the number of trackside detectors that monitor for overheated wheel bearings. In one significant difference, the Senate bill would require that most freight trains have two-person crews, while the House bill would not.

Railroads have spoken out against the two-person crew requirement and urged Congress to wait for the final NTSB investigation to pass any new regulations.

The industry has also stepped up its lobbying this year. In the first three months of 2023, industry groups spent a combined $7.1 million on lobbying — a roughly $1.8 million increase from the $5.3 million it spent in the previous three months.

The railroads say there isn’t any data to show one-person crews are riskier than two-person crews. They also point out that the East Palestine train actually had three crew members aboard when it derailed.

Sen. John Thune, who is currently the Republican whip but in 2003 and 2004 worked as a lobbyist for Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad, said in a Senate committee debate that it was important to hold Norfolk Southern, whose train derailed on Feb. 3, accountable for the derailment. He also voiced support for “pragmatic reforms.” But Thune ultimately opposed the bill from Vance and Brown and cautioned against the “cost of regulation” on railroads.

“There is not much in the proposed legislation that would address the derailment in East Palestine based on what we know so far,” Thune said.

Railroads have a long history of resisting new regulations, and an industry group has already filed a lawsuit challenging some new state rules Ohio passed after the derailment. It maintains that any new regulations should be based on data that proves the rules would actually make railroads safer.

“We’ve always been encouraging members of Congress to take their time to make sure they have the facts and the data and the technical analysis coming from NTSB and other regulators so that we can have a fact-based conversation,” CSX CEO Joe Hinrichs said. “All of us want safety in the rail network and in our communities.”

As the bill proponents make a push in the coming months, Brown said he was counting on help from residents directly impacted by the February derailment.

“The area of the state this happened in is a very conservative, Republican part of the state. But I am their ally. They know it. They’re my allies in this,” said Brown, who is expected to face a tough reelection race next year. “They put pressure. They don’t care about partisan politics.”


Funk reported from Omaha, Neb.

National News

Associated Press

The police chief who led a raid of a small Kansas newspaper has been suspended

The police chief who led a highly criticized raid of a small Kansas newspaper has been suspended, the mayor confirmed to The Associated Press on Saturday. Marion Mayor Dave Mayfield in a text said he suspended Chief Gideon Cody on Thursday. He declined to discuss his decision further and did not say whether Cody was […]

2 hours ago

FILE - Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., listens to fellow speakers before President Joe Biden speaks on ...

Associated Press

Rep. Jamaal Bowman triggered a fire alarm in a House office building amid voting on a funding bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman acknowledged triggering a fire alarm Saturday in one of the U.S. Capitol office buildings as lawmakers scrambled to pass a bill to fund the government before the midnight shutdown deadline. The fire alarm sounded out around noon in the Cannon House Office Building and prompted a building-wide evacuation […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Federal agency sues Chipotle after a Kansas manager allegedly ripped off an employee’s hijab

A federal agency has sued the restaurant chain Chipotle, accusing it of religious harassment and retaliation after a manager at a Kansas location forcibly removed an employee’s hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women. In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged that in 2021, an assistant manager at a Chipotle […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Virginia ex-superintendent convicted of misdemeanor in firing of teacher

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia jury has convicted a former schools superintendent on a misdemeanor charge in connection with what prosecutors said was the retaliatory firing of a teacher who reported that an elementary school student inappropriately touched her. Former Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler was acquitted on a separate misdemeanor count […]

4 hours ago

Doris Peters calls voters during a phone bank event Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, at the Republican Par...

Associated Press

Anti-abortion groups are at odds on strategies ahead of Ohio vote. It could be a preview for 2024

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Abortion opponents in Ohio are at odds not only over how to frame their opposition to a reproductive rights initiative on the state’s November ballot but also over their longer-term goals on how severely they would restrict the procedure. The disagreements, roiling the anti-abortion side just six weeks before Election Day, […]

8 hours ago

Joe Heath, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation, walks into the Nation's Longhouse for a meeting...

Associated Press

Rejected by US courts, Onondaga Nation take centuries-old land rights case to international panel

ONONDAGA NATION TERRITORY (AP) — The Onondaga Nation has protested for centuries that illegal land grabs shrank its territory from what was once thousands of square miles in upstate New York to a relatively paltry patch of land south of Syracuse. It took its case to President George Washington, to Congress and, more recently, to […]

8 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife...

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

September is a busy month on the sports calendar and also holds a very special designation: Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

Ziply Fiber...

Dan Miller

The truth about Gigs, Gs and other internet marketing jargon

If you’re confused by internet technologies and marketing jargon, you’re not alone. Here's how you can make an informed decision.

Education families...

Education that meets the needs of students, families

Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) is a program of Omak School District that is a full-time online public school for students in grades K-12.

Emergency preparedness...

Emergency planning for the worst-case scenario

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder in your kitchen? West Coast Armory North can help.

Innovative Education...

The Power of an Innovative Education

Parents and students in Washington state have the power to reimagine the K-12 educational experience through Insight School of Washington.

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

Six months after East Palestine derailment, Congress deadlocked on new rules for train safety