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Lawmakers propose legislation to toughen rail safety standards Story-level




WASHINGTON — Two House Democrats plan to introduce a bill Tuesday to toughen federal regulation of trains carrying hazardous materials, the first piece of legislation to come before Congress since the derailment of a freight train carrying toxic substances that devastated a small community in Ohio.

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

Prospects for the measure are uncertain in a divided Congress, where the derailment has sparked a highly partisan debate about rail safety, federal regulation, and who, if anyone, in Washington is looking after the plight of rural communities as East Palestine, Ohio. . This month, 38 Norfolk Southern railcars, 11 of which were carrying hazardous materials, veered off the tracks and started a large 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 of the agricultural city of East Palestine have continued to suffer ecological damage.

“I have people that I represent who are concerned about their health, their safety, their livelihoods and they are angry at this railroad and the rail industry in general,” 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 address the problem of these hazardous materials and chemicals reaching our communities.”

The bill’s introduction comes as lawmakers from both parties have rushed to respond to the derailment. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Majority Leader, asked the CEO of Norfolk Southern on Monday to testify on Capitol Hill about what went wrong.

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

And six members of Congress representing the region have written to Norfolk Southern demanding details about the railroad’s operations and the company’s plan to clean up contaminated resources.

But the Deluzio and Khanna legislation is the first bill to be introduced on the issue in Congress. It would lower the threshold for a train to be considered a “high risk flammable train.” Such trains must go no more than 50 miles per hour and have newer braking equipment and special carriages when transporting hazardous materials across the country.

The Department of Transportation currently applies those 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 additional safety precautions.

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

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

A report released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the train crew was alerted to an overheated wheel bearing just moments before some of the train cars rolled off the tracks.

The safety board chairperson said in an interview Thursday that any recommendations from the board would likely require action by Congress or the rail companies.

“What East Palestine represented,” Khanna said in an interview, “were people who have been affected by globalization and who now suffer, once again, because of greed for the railways. This is something concrete that we can do to hold them accountable and address the wrongs of what happened.”

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

The bill reflects some recommendations the National Transportation Safety Board proposed in 2014. The Obama administration adopted a rule requiring high-risk flammable trains to upgrade their braking systems by 2023, but the Trump administration adopted it. repeated after Department of Transportation officials reported that the costs exceeded the value of the mandates.

emily cochrane contributed reporting.

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