Rail companies blocked safety rules before Ohio derailment

By | February 18, 2023

The Lever reports:

Before the recent fiery Norfolk Southern train derailment prompted emergency evacuations in Ohio, the company helped kill a federal safety rule aimed at upgrading the rail industry’s Civil War-era braking systems, according to documents reviewed by The Lever.

Though the company’s 150-car train in Ohio reportedly burst into 100-foot flames upon derailing — and was transporting materials that triggered a fireball when they were released and incinerated — it was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train,” federal officials told The Lever.

Documents show that when current transportation safety rules were first created, a federal agency sided with industry lobbyists and limited regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds. The decision effectively exempted many trains hauling dangerous materials — including the one in Ohio — from the “high-hazard” classification and its more stringent safety requirements.

Amid the lobbying blitz against stronger transportation safety regulations, Norfolk Southern paid executives millions and spent billions on stock buybacks — all while the company shed thousands of employees despite warnings that understaffing is intensifying safety risks. Norfolk Southern officials also fought off a shareholder initiative that could have required company executives to “assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation.” [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports:

Norfolk Southern, which earned more than $3 billion last year, invested close to $2 billion in its railways and operations, up a third from 2021. But over the past five years, it paid shareholders nearly $18 billion through stock buybacks and dividends — twice as much as the amount it invested in its railways and operations. Other large railways have paid out billions to their shareholders, too, and their shares have done better than the wider stock market over the last decade.

“For years, the railroads have fought all kinds of basic safety regulations — modern braking systems, stronger tank cars for explosive materials, even information about what’s on trains passing through communities — based on an argument that it simply costs too much to protect our lives, health, and our air and water,” said Kristen Boyles, a managing attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental group. “It’s disgusting to find out that at the same time these companies have been making massive shareholder payments.” [Continue reading…]

Politico reports:

The Biden administration is considering civil penalties for freight railroad Norfolk Southern, along with possibly a legally binding order to ensure the company pays for cleanup costs associated with the toxic derailment in Ohio on Feb. 3, senior officials told reporters on Friday.

In a call designed to highlight the work of several agencies on the ground in East Palestine, Ohio, administration officials detailed the work being conducted by FEMA, the EPA, Health and Human Services, Transportation Department and independent investigatory agency the National Transportation Safety Board. The railroad has already pledged to pay for the costs of the cleanup, but officials said Friday that if it does not, the government would do it and charge Norfolk Southern three times the cost.

Several officials noted that previous disasters, such as the 2013 derailment in Quebec of a runaway train carrying crude oil that caught fire and killed 47 people, had spurred regulatory and legislative action and they were certain this would have a similar result.

The officials also defended the furor of criticism of what some see as a delayed response by the administration, in particular DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg who did not speak publicly about the derailment until over a week after it happened, by saying an evacuation order was in place early on because of the danger of an explosion and local authorities were telling people to stay out of the area. Beyond that, they said that visits by high-ranking officials can create a distraction to crews working on the ground. [Continue reading…]

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