Ohio Senators Introduce Railway Safety Bill to Prevent Future Derailments

Ohio Senators Introduce Railway Safety Bill to Prevent Future Derailments
Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., Feb. 6, 2023 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video released by the NTSB. (NTSBGov/Handout via REUTERS)
Samantha Flom

Sens. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have announced new legislation to improve railway safety and prevent future derailments, like the one that recently devastated their constituents in East Palestine, Ohio.

Co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), John Fetterman (D-Penn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the bipartisan bill (pdf) aims to enhance safety protocols for trains carrying hazardous materials by instituting new regulations and requirements for rail carriers, heightened maximum fines for misconduct, and the appropriation of funds for research and enhanced HAZMAT training for first responders.
“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again,” Vance said in a March 1 statement. “We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind.”

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed while traveling through the village of East Palestine—bordering Pennsylvania—resulting in the leakage of toxic chemicals into the ground, water, and air.

Since then, residents have reported adverse health reactions, including rashes, nausea, headaches, burning sensations, and difficulty breathing. And despite state and federal authorities’ assurances that the air and public water are safe, many remain skeptical and concerned about the potential long-term health consequences they could experience from chemical exposure.

“Action to prevent future disasters is critical, but we must never lose sight of the needs of the Ohioans living in East Palestine and surrounding communities,” Vance stated. Vance has also proposed the creation of a federal Paycheck Protection Program for those affected.

“One day, the TV cameras will leave, and the news cycle will move on, but the needs of those Ohioans will remain,” he said. “I will never stop fighting to deliver the support they need.”

Since the crash, Vance and Brown have appeared to set aside any political differences and worked together to draw attention to the plight of their constituents, calling on federal agencies to establish a long-term health monitoring program for those affected.

“It shouldn’t take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve—not corporations like Norfolk Southern,” Brown said on March 1.

“Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine and Steubenville and Sandusky,” Brown said. “These commonsense bipartisan safety measures will finally hold big railroad companies accountable, make our railroads and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies, so no community has to suffer like East Palestine again.”

According to a preliminary report from the independent National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB), the East Palestine derailment was caused by an overheated wheel bearing.

Wheel bearing temperature is monitored by wayside defect detectors, also known as hot bearing detectors. And while the detectors along the train’s route were reportedly working properly on Feb. 3, the distance between detectors was far enough that the wheel bearing was able to reach a critical temperature before setting off any alarms.

The new bill would address that problem by requiring all Class I railroads to install one hot bearing detector for every 10-mile segment of track used by trains carrying hazardous materials. The bill would also implement enhanced performance, repair, and maintenance standards for those detectors and establish standard emergency response protocols for crew members.

Other safety measures outlined in the bill include the requirement of two-person crews on every train, stricter inspection protocols for trains carrying hazardous materials, new regulations on train size and weight, and the requirement that rail carriers provide advanced notice to emergency response officials when hazardous materials are being transported through their state.

But while the bill has received bipartisan support, the question of whether it has enough support to pass both houses of Congress is another story with some elected officials, such as Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas), indicating they would prefer to wait for more details about the derailment before passing any new regulations.

“A lot of people have a lot of ideas right now,” Nehls said in a recent interview with Politico. “The NTSB had their preliminary report. There’ll be more information coming.”
Nehls, who has launched an inquiry into the EPA’s response to the derailment, also dismissed the idea of increasing the maximum fines on railroad companies for safety violations.

“The rail industry has a very high success rate of moving hazardous material—to the point of 99 percent-plus,” he told the outlet. “Let’s not have more burdensome regulations and all this other stuff.”

Samantha Flom is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering U.S. politics and news. A graduate of Syracuse University, she has a background in journalism and nonprofit communications. Contact her at [email protected].