Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called on the rail industry to immediately improve safety standards or face stiff penalties after a train derailment in Ohio forced mass evacuations and a toxic chemical spill and the fire.
Buttigieg on Tuesday unveiled a reform package that would increase fines for “serious violations,” force railroad companies to provide sick pay, and notify local officials when transporting hazardous materials through their state.
The current maximum fine a railroad company could face was $225,455, which it described as a “rounding error” for a company like Norfolk Southern that had annual operating income of $4.8 billion in 2022.
It also called on railway companies to set up confidential hotlines where staff could report safety concerns, following previous instances where Norfolk Southern allegedly tried to silence whistleblowers.
“Profit and opportunity must never outweigh the safety of the American people,” Buttigieg said in a news release.
“We (the Department of Transportation) are doing everything in our power to improve railroad safety and are urging the railroad industry do the same, calling on Congress to work with us to raise the bar.”
Mr. Buttigieg wrote to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Sunday accusing him of putting profit before safety ahead of the Feb. 3 derailment of a train carrying toxic materials in eastern Palestine.
Mr. Buttigieg warned the executive that the federal government would be watching closely to ensure the rail company delivers on its promise to clean up the city.
Continue cleaning up portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Feb. 3 in eastern Palestine, Ohio. (Associated Press)
On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals suffered a catastrophic derailment on the outskirts of eastern Palestine.
State officials decided to burn the chemicals, causing a huge explosion and sending plumes of toxic black smoke hundreds of feet into the air.
Thousands of residents were evacuated, before being given the all-clear to return several days later.
In a public meeting last week in eastern Palestine, residents said they did not trust assurances that the water and air were safe.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned rail companies (Associated Press)
Local officials have posted clips on social media showing them drink tap water in an attempt to reassure the city.
Norfolk Southern said in a statement on Monday that it had pledged $5.6 million to help residents of eastern Palestine.
A spokesman said 15,000 pounds of contaminated filth and 1.1 million liters of dirty water had been removed from the derailment site.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan was traveling back to eastern Palestine on Tuesday to oversee the cleanup operation, Buttigieg said.
On Monday, Buttigieg said he would travel to eastern Palestine “when the time was right.”