Updated February 21, 2023 at 2:03 pm ET
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says he is taking steps to impose tougher regulations on freight trains carrying toxic chemicals, like the one that derailed and burst into flames near eastern Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month, forcing thousands of people evacuating their homes and raising environmental issues and health concerns.
He’s also asking Congress to “untie” the agency’s hands regarding legislation that has weakened the Department of Transportation’s ability to enforce certain safety and accountability rules.
Buttigieg accused the railroad industry of employing “vigorous resistance” to increased safety measures, which he said has undermined efforts to strengthen tank cars and impose better braking on trains carrying volatile fuels, chemicals and other toxic substances.
“Profit and opportunity must never outweigh the safety of the American people,” Buttigieg said Monday. “We at USDOT are doing everything in our power to improve railroad safety and we insist that the railroad industry do the same, calling on Congress to work with us to raise the bar.”
Safety advocates say Buttigieg has been slow to respond to the train crash and the DOT has been slow to adopt new rail safety regulations in the two years he’s been in office. Buttigieg sought to pin the blame on industry, suggesting that his heavy lobbying led Congress to limit the DOT’s ability to act.
Republicans, in particular, called Buttigieg’s response to the disaster wanting. Buttigieg pushed back, saying Republicans in Congress have watered down his agency’s railroad safety efforts.
Buttigieg reiterated the need for stronger rail safety regulations and enforcement power in an interview Tuesday at Morning edition.
“The root cause investigation is being conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB is independent, with good reason, and we’ll know more when they release their final report,” Buttigieg said. “But it’s not too early to push for a change in how the industry approaches safety. And that’s exactly what we’re calling for today.”
He also said that people in eastern Palestine have “right to be concerned”.
He pointed to the actions the federal government is taking, from the Environmental Protection Agency testing air, water and soil to the Centers for Disease Control sending public health crews to the community. The EPA said so on Tuesday would take over the cleanup and the railway operator Norfolk Southern would have to pay the costs.
“This is a practical matter where there are multiple federal agencies working with state government and local authorities to get these residents everything they need,” Buttigieg said. “And that support will continue.”
Buttigieg wants newer tank cars, better brakes and higher fines
Buttigieg, who has faced some criticism for not visiting the crash site, says he stayed away to allow the NTSB to take the lead in investigating the cause and for emergency management to focus on immediate response. He says he hopes to visit the site in the future, but no date has been set.
Speaking to reporters on Monday evening, Buttigieg said he wants rail companies to accelerate the phase-in of sturdier, puncture-resistant tank cars carrying volatile or toxic substances. The DOT has mandated the use of the new tank cars and the phase out of older, weaker ones by 2025. But Congress has delayed the expiration of the new tank car until 2029.
Buttigieg also wants Congress to increase the maximum amount the DOT can fine railroads for safety violations. He says the fines right now are so low that he’s concerned that the big railroad companies are simply writing them off as a cost of doing business.
“The maximum fine we can issue, even for serious violations involving hazardous materials resulting in loss of life, is just over $225,000,” he said. “For a multibillion-dollar railroad company that makes profits in the billions every year, it’s not enough to have an adequate deterrent effect.”
Buttigieg added that the DOT is considering reviewing how it classifies some toxic and volatile chemicals. Although the derailed Norfolk Southern train was considered one carrying hazardous materials, it was not considered a “High Hazard Flammable Train” or HHFT, which requires compliance with certain safety protocols.
And he says he wants to move forward by requiring trains carrying such hazardous materials to be equipped with a superior electronically controlled braking system. In 2015, the DOT issued a rule requiring electronically controlled air brakes on trains with more than 20 HHFT cars, but Congress mandated that a cost-benefit analysis be conducted before it could go into effect, and then in 2017 l Trump administration repealed the rule.
“We can’t treat these disasters as inevitable or as a cost of doing business,” Buttigieg said. “There is now a window of opportunity with Congress after what happened in eastern Palestine that I don’t think existed before, and we aim to use that window of opportunity to raise the bar” on security.