Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a three-part plan to improve rail safety after a catastrophic train derailment in Ohio earlier this month caused mandatory evacuations and ongoing soil, groundwater, and air contamination.
Under the plan, DOT will update rules to better regulate hazardous trains and their cargo and will ask rail companies to upgrade all rail tank cars that carry flammable/explosive products faster. The agency will also increase enforcement of current policies, like regular inspections of older cars. DOT is also calling on Congress to pass legislation to enshrine modern safety requirements for the rail industry.
The new plan comes on the heels of a renewed appeal submitted to DOT last week by Earthjustice, on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Washington Conservation Action, and Stand. In 2018, Earthjustice and its clients first submitted an administrative appeal in response to the elimination of safety regulations that required certain trains carrying hazardous cargo to have modern electronic brake systems, asserting the agency failed to conduct mandated safety tests and used egregiously low estimates of risks.
“For years, railroads have lobbied against even basic safety requirements, putting profits over people,” said Kristen Boyles, Earthjustice managing attorney. “We welcome today’s announcement, but we cannot rely on voluntary change from the railroads — DOT and Congress need to move quickly to protect communities and the environment from another disaster.”
Railroads like Norfolk Southern, which owns the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, lobbied against more stringent safety requirements. As a result, there are explosive tank cars with “Civil War-era braking systems” traveling through towns and neighborhoods carrying hazardous, flammable materials, like toxic petrochemicals.
Local groups like River Valley Organizing and the Breathe Project are asking for swift clean-up actions as well as thorough testing and monitoring of residents’ exposure to the toxic chemicals burned and released by Norfolk Southern. Earthjustice calls on state and federal authorities to support local advocacy efforts immediately.