Federal, state officials weigh plans to increase rail safety

By: and - March 2, 2023 4:50 am

Democratic Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, left, and Republican Ohio U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, right. Official photos.

Ohio’s U.S. Senators have introduced sweeping rail safety legislation alongside four other senators from both sides of the aisle. Their Rail Safety Act of 2023 demands procedural and equipment changes, while increasing fines for violations and offering funding to spur improvements.

Meanwhile, Ohio legislators met in the new Senate Select Committee on Rail Safety to hear from members of the Ohio EPA and the state Emergency Management Agency as to what went down and what continues being done in East Palestine.

Ohio EPA and the state EMA said the unified command of the site is ongoing with the U.S. EPA, with a 24/7 watch on any tests and sampling Norfolk Southern does at the site, along with the agencies’ own testing.

“As you can imagine, relying solely on Norfolk Southern is a conflict of interest,” committee member Sen. Louis Blessing, III, R-Colerain Twp., said.

The Rail Safety Act was mentioned as part of a plan to prevent further disasters, a plan that also included commitments to continue monitoring air, water and soil quality and provide relief for town residents.

“We are in it for the long haul,” said Mark Johnson, deputy director of business and regulatory affairs for the Ohio EPA.

In a call with reporters, Democratic Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown insisted the measure’s provisions would’ve reduced the severity of crash in East Palestine.

“We got a really good bill. The changes will make a real difference,” Brown said “We will have more inspections by qualified mechanics. The damage would’ve been less severe, for sure, if this had been in effect.”

In a press release, co-sponsor Republican Ohio U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance argued that “Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again. We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind.”

Among the procedural changes, their legislation requires at least two crewmembers on every train. It also directs rail carriers to inspect cars carrying hazardous materials regularly and provide advance notice to local officials about what they’re transporting through a state. More broadly, the legislation directs regulators to develop rules for train size and weight — a likely point of contention for railroads.

So far as equipment, the legislation requires railroads install wayside detectors every 10 miles to identify problems before they’re emergencies. Ahead of the derailment in East Palestine, these detectors tracked the spiking temperature of one of the railcar’s bearings.

The proposal offers a total of $27 million to fund research and development grants for wayside detectors and rail car safety improvements. On the other hand it would increase the maximum safety violation fines from $225,000 to 1% of the railroad’s annual operating income.

Safety notice

Separate of the legislation, federal regulators have issued guidance encouraging rail operators to review their wayside systems. The Federal Railroad Administration urged rail companies reconsider inspection, maintenance and warning thresholds. In light of East Palestine they encourage companies to develop thresholds “for single measurement, as well as multiple measurements of individual bearings to enable temperature trend analysis.”

Federal Railroad Administration chief Amitabha Bose described wayside detector procedures as “indicators of a railroad’s safety culture.”

The notice cited three different Norfolk Southern derailments just since 2021 in which burnt journal bearings likely played a role. In the first, the train crew received warnings and saw leaking lubricant when they stopped to check. They traveled into the next station without triggering other detectors. Crews hooked the suspect car onto another train without inspection or repair. A little more than 15 miles out the train derailed.

In another incident, the crew saw smoke coming from a bearing after getting a warning from a dispatcher. They waited two hours for an inspection, at which point “the electrician reported the smoke had stopped and the bearing had cooled.”

Seven miles later the train derailed, leaking molten paraffin wax and knocking out power for 1,200 people.

“Personnel should be encouraged and empowered to develop procedures that may temporarily impact operations, but maximize safety,” Bose wrote. “Just as those executing the procedures should be empowered to strictly adhere to those procedures, even if it delays a train.”

Clean-up and monitoring of crash site continues

Johnson said state EPA director Anne Vogel has been on the ground in East Palestine since the clean-up process began, and plans to continue as much as is needed.

While air monitoring is “not showing any issues to date,” according to Johnson, the state EPA is using federal standards to keep track of the chemical levels in East Palestine.

Legislators said they were encouraged by the commitment of the federal and state agencies to stay until the job is done, even if that means they remain for years to come.

“It’s clear our level of concern rises based not on what did happen, but what could happen,” said Senate Minority Leaders Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood.

Ohio EMA Executive Director Sima Merick said her agency continues preparedness actions, and plans to stand alongside the other agencies and communities affected to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

Committee member Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, pushed for her fellow members to travel to the site to get the full picture.

“I know Senator (Michael) Rulli has been there many times, and I think it would behoove us to do the same and hear from the residents on the ground in East Palestine,” Roegner said.

The committee plans to meet again next week, according to its chair, state Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, who also said the committee may meet in East Palestine at a later date, after the budget process is complete.



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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.