Lawmakers Propose Legislation to Tighten Rail Safety Regulations

WASHINGTON — Two House Democrats plan on Tuesday to introduce a bill to tighten federal regulation of trains carrying hazardous materials, the first legislative proposal to emerge in Congress since the derailment of a freight train carrying toxic substances that has devastated a small community in Ohio.

Representatives Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania, whose district lies along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border near where the derailment occurred, and Ro Khanna of California are sponsoring the legislation, which would broaden the definition of what is considered a “high-hazard flammable train,” subject to stricter federal safety regulations. The train that derailed this month was exempt from such requirements because it was carrying less hazardous material than the threshold set by the Transportation Department.

The prospects for the measure are uncertain in a divided Congress, where the derailment has touched off a highly partisan debate over rail safety, federal regulation and who, if anyone, in Washington is looking out for the plight of rural communities like East Palestine, Ohio. This month, 38 Norfolk Southern rail cars, 11 of which carried hazardous materials, careened off the tracks there and ignited a huge fire.

Officials decided to release and burn toxic materials from the train days later, sending a large plume of toxic smoke into the sky. Residents in the farm town of East Palestine have continued to suffer from the ecological damage.

“I have people I represent worried about their health, their safety, their livelihoods, and are mad at this railroad and the rail industry in general,” Mr. Deluzio said in an interview. “So it’s important to me and the people I represent that we do what we can to make this industry safer, that we tackle the problem of these dangerous materials and chemicals coming through our communities”

The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

When a freight train derailed in Ohio on Feb. 3, it set off evacuation orders, a toxic chemical scare and a federal investigation.

The bill’s introduction comes as lawmakers in both parties have rushed to respond to the derailment. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, on Monday called on the chief executive of Norfolk Southern to testify on Capitol Hill about what went wrong.

In the Republican-led House, the Oversight and Accountability Committee has begun an investigation into the Biden administration’s handling of the incident, while two other panels — Transportation and Infrastructure, and Energy and Commerce — have formally requested information.

And six members of Congress who represent the region wrote to Norfolk Southern demanding details of the railroad’s operations and the company’s plan to clean up contaminated resources.

But the legislation by Mr. Deluzio and Mr. Khanna is the first bill to be introduced on the matter in Congress. It would lower the threshold for a train to be considered a “high-hazard flammable train.” Such trains are required to go no faster than 50 miles per hour, and have newer braking equipment and special cars when transporting hazardous materials across the country.

The Transportation Department currently applies such rules to trains carrying flammable liquids in at least 20 consecutive cars — or 35 cars total. The derailed Ohio train had such substances in three of its cars, well below the threshold to require the additional safety precautions.

The legislation would lower the limit to one rail car containing any one of an expanded list of hazardous substances, beyond flammable liquids.

Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, said this month that it was “absurd” that the derailed train was not considered a high-hazard flammable train, calling on Congress to take action.

A report released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the crew of the train was alerted about an overheating wheel bearing only moments before some of the train’s cars left the tracks.

The safety board’s chairwoman said in an interview on Thursday that any recommendation from the board would most likely require action by Congress or the railroad companies.

“What East Palestine represented,” Mr. Khanna said in an interview, “was people who have been shafted by globalization who are now suffering — yet again — because of the greed over railroads. This is something concrete that we can do to hold them accountable and to address the wrongs of what happened.”

The measure would also mandate that rail carriers report to the federal National Response Center, state officials and local officials within 24 hours when a train carrying toxic chemicals derails.

The bill mirrors some recommendations that the National Transportation Safety Board proposed in 2014. The Obama administration adopted a rule that required high-hazard flammable trains to upgrade their braking systems by 2023, but it was repealed by the Trump administration after Transportation Department officials reported that the costs outweighed the value of the mandate.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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