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Buttigieg announces track inspections in wake of Ohio train derailment

Ron Fodo, of Ohio EPA Emergency Response, looks for signs of fish and also agitates the water in Leslie Run creek to check for chemicals that have settled at the bottom following the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (Michael Swensen/Getty Images)
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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called on the rail industry to take immediate steps Tuesday to improve safety after the derailment in Ohio, including speeding the adoption of new tank cars and providing workers with paid sick leave.

Buttigieg said his department also would begin a round of track inspections on routes used by trains carrying hazardous materials and study the possibility of issuing rules requiring railroads to adopt new braking technology on some trains. He reiterated a call he made in a letter to the chief executive of Norfolk Southern on Sunday for Congress to raise the $225,455 maximum on fines for violations of railroad safety rules.

“This represents an important moment to redouble our efforts to make this far less likely to happen again in the future,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg, and the Biden administration more generally, have faced criticism for their response to the derailment, with some lawmakers, officials and residents questioning whether the federal government has done enough to help. Federal officials in recent days have been seeking to demonstrate steps to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan visited the derailment site in East Palestine for a second time Tuesday, and the agency said it would take control of the cleanup efforts. Buttigieg told reporters Monday that he also would make a trip to the community “when the time is right.”

“I am very interested in getting to know the residents of East Palestine, hearing from them about how they’ve been impacted and communicating with them about the state of the steps that we are taking,” Buttigieg said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the derailment of the 149-car Norfolk Southern train, but it could be months before agency investigators establish the cause of the incident and make safety recommendations. Nonetheless, Buttigieg said action was needed now because, at about 1,000 a year, derailments remainfar too frequent.”

Ian Jefferies, chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, said Tuesday the NTSB’s investigation into the derailment should be allowed to continue “unimpeded by politics and speculation.”

“No community should ever face the events of February 3rd,” Jeffries said in a statement. “This is why railroads are steadfastly committed to solutions-oriented steps that directly address the cause of the accident and could prevent a similar accident from occurring elsewhere.”

The high-profile incident — characterized by images of a controlled burn of vinyl chloride that left a plume of thick, black smoke over the town — has spurred new interest in making changes to safety rules, even among some Republican lawmakers, whose party has been skeptical of regulation in the recent past.

Buttigieg referred to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a briefing with reporters Monday afternoon. Rubio wrote to Buttigieg last week to raise the prospect that a crew of three might be insufficient for a train of the length of the one that derailed — a comment that drew the attention of labor leaders who are backing a Biden administration proposal to require at least two crew on most trains.

“I can’t help but notice that the last time this agency heard from him on rail regulation was his signature, being on a letter that was pretty obviously drafted by industry calling on us to weaken our practices around track inspection,” Buttigieg said.

The letter was signed by 23 senators in support of automated track-testing technology.

Dan Holler, a spokesman for Rubio, said it was wrong to characterize the senator as a cheerleader for the industry. Holler pointed to an article Rubio wrote in December questioning the lengths the industry had gone to cut jobs in the name of boosting profits.

Rubio also joined with Democrats and a few other Republicans last year to vote in favor of providing sick leave to rail workers amid tense labor negotiations.

Buttigieg sidestepped a question about a planned visit by former president Donald Trump to East Palestine this week, saying that as a sitting official, he didn’t want to comment on a presidential candidate.

Buttigieg’s plan includes a call for railroads to speed their adoption of a new standard of tank cars, which would bring the transition date to 2025 rather than the current legal deadline of 2029. He also called on major freight railroads to join a confidential safety program that allows employees to report concerns, a system similar to one credited with improving aviation safety.

Buttigieg calls for higher maximum fines for railroad safety breaches

Buttigieg also urged railroads to provide paid sick leave, arguing that a healthier workforce would work more safely. The issue nearly led to a national rail strike before Congress stepped in and required workers to accept pay raises and working conditions negotiated by the White House.

But unions have continued to push for better leave, with CSX, one of the nation’s largest railroads, reaching an agreement this month to provide leave for some workers.

On Monday, Union Pacific, one of the nation’s largest railroads, announced an agreement with two of its unions to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave. The agreement, which takes effect April 1, includes four new days of sick leave per year and an the opportunity to designate the use of personal leave days for sick leave, union leaders said.

“Union Pacific employees currently receive paid personal days off, and we will continue to work with other unions to address paid sick time solutions,” the railroad tweeted on Monday.

The National Conference of Firemen & Oilers and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen applauded the deal and urged other railroads to join them at the bargaining table and pay their workers sick leave.

“It is time for all the railroads to stop avoiding this issue,” NCFO President Dean Devita said in a statement, urging the companies to “do what is right for their employees …. If they continue to refuse, we will take this fight back to Congress and expose any railroad that won’t enter into a sick leave agreement.”

The Transportation Department also plans to revisit standards for a class of train that carries highly hazardous, flammable materials and is looking at the possibility of requiring a new kind of electronically controlled brakes on some trains. The Obama administration imposed a mandate that ultimately was rolled back in the Trump era. Officials have said they face obstacles to reviving it, but Buttigieg said he had directed his team to explore options and called on Congress to make it easier to require the brakes.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), his party’s leader on the House Transportation Committee, said the proposals were a good first step.

“I look forward to working on solutions in the weeks to come that deliver real improvements to our system including providing the Department of Transportation with stronger tools to penalize bad actors, updating the rules governing the transport of hazardous materials, and supporting the hardworking railroad workers who keep our economy running,” he said in a statement.

The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill

The latest: DOJ is also suing Norfolk Southern over the toxic train derailment. Senators questioned Norfolk Southern’s CEO on rail safety records as Ohio is suing the freight company. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the Ohio train derailment.

What are the health risks of the chemical spill? One toxic gas, vinyl chloride, was burned after the derailment, sending various toxins and chemicals into the air. The EPA is handling the disaster response.

The politics: Amid a partisan divide over the disaster response, former president Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the derailment site.

Who is impacted? The Biden administration is taking heat for not doing enough to help, while Ohio residents are angry after Norfolk Southern backed out of a town hall addressing the response. The derailment also killed more than 43,000 aquatic animals in the area. Here’s what to know about the derailment’s toxic plume.