WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (Reuters) – The Biden administration on Friday defended its response to the Feb. 3 derailment of a train loaded with toxic chemicals in eastern Palestine, Ohio, which started a fire and sent a cloud of smoke over the city, saying it was sending more federal resources.
The train derailment, operated by Norfolk Southern (NSC.N), forced thousands of residents to evacuate as railway staff drained and burned chemicals. No deaths or injuries were reported, but residents have asked for answers about potential health risks.
“We have mobilized a robust multi-agency effort to support the people of eastern Palestine, Ohio,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said during a briefing. “The federal government is committed to making sure the community gets what it needs and will stand there on the ground as long as it needs to.”
In response to the derailment and the safety concerns it raises, US Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell on Friday said she had opened an investigation into the railroads’ hazardous materials safety practices.
Cantwell, in a letter to the CEO of Norfolk Southern and the CEOs of six other freight rail operators, noted that the train had “20 hazmat cars in total carrying vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and isobutylene, of which 11 derailed”.
“Every railroad must review its hazmat safety practices to better protect its employees, the environment and American families, and reassert safety as a top priority,” Cantwell wrote.
The letter was also sent to the CEOs of Berkshire Hathaway (BRKa.N) Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Canadian National (CNR.TO), Canadian Pacific (CP.TO), CSX (CSX.O), Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific (UNP.N).
The railroads did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Friday they were deploying a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health tests and assessments. Federal Railroad Administration chief Amit Bose will visit the site next week, and the Environmental Protection Agency is ramping up testing.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said the railroad has established a $1 million community support seed fund and has distributed $1.7 million in direct financial assistance to more than 1,100 families and businesses. to cover evacuation costs. “We will not let you down,” he told residents in a letter.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said on Friday that a plume of pollution drifting along the Ohio River, a source of drinking water for 5 million people, had dissipated and said state tests never showed it contaminated water has entered municipal watering systems in its path .
DeWine has called on Congress to review railroad safety rules, complaining that states have little power to ask about what types of dangerous goods are moving across their borders.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Thursday more needs to be done to address rail safety in the face of hundreds of annual train derailments. He noted that there are about 1,000 train derailments a year.
DeWine said he hopes there is a full presidential commission or large hearings in Congress to investigate the incident and ensure it never happens again.
The Association of American Railroads said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) should proceed with its investigation into the crash before any changes are made to safety regulations.
Cantwell noted that in the past five years the largest railroads “have reduced their workforces by nearly a third, closed the railyards where railcars are traditionally inspected, and run longer, heavier trains.” The group did not immediately comment on Cantwell’s letter.
NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said on Twitter that a eliminated rule to mandate electronically controlled air brakes would not have prevented a derailment because it would apply only to high-risk flammable trains.
Reporting by David Shepardson and Brad Brooks; editing by Diane Craft and Leslie Adler
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