Advocacy Groups Call for Better Rail Brakes

Source: Waterkeeper Alliance announcement

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As a public health and environmental disaster unfolds following the derailment and explosion of a toxic-chemical cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, advocacy groups renewed their challenge to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) 2018 repeal of a regulation requiring electronic brake systems for trains carrying hazardous and flammable material.

In 2018, the federal agencies charged with regulating hazardous materials on trains actually removed safety rules requiring modern braking systems. But they failed to conduct mandated safety tests, used inaccurately low estimates of accidents and risks, and restricted public participation. Earthjustice, on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Washington Conservation Action, and Stand, appealed the rule, but the agencies failed to respond, siding with companies like Norfolk Southern, who lobbied against more stringent safety requirements. The DOT’s silence has meant more explosive tank cars with “Civil War-era braking systems” traveling through towns and neighborhoods.

“It should not take another exploding train to get DOT’s attention,” said Earthjustice Attorney Kristen Boyles. “Communities can’t keep trains out, can’t get safety measures, can’t know what trains are carrying, and yet are left with the human health and environmental problems when there’s an accident.”

Earthjustice’s appeal focused on trains carrying large amounts of volatile crude oil in long unit trains, and it is not clear whether the Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals in Ohio would have been covered by DOT’s repealed brake system requirement. What is clear, however, is that the agency has failed to require up-to-date, modern brake systems for most trains carrying explosively toxic materials.

The long-term impacts of the Feb. 3 toxic chemical explosions on people’s health are yet unknown, but residents have reported experiencing nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headaches. It has also been confirmed that the hazardous chemicals have spilled into the Ohio River, which covers 14 states and provides drinking water to more than 5 million people. The state confirmed the contaminated waterways have led to the deaths of at least 3,500 fish. Environmental groups have called on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to declare a state of emergency and formally ask President Joe Biden for FEMA aid so that affected residents can get immediate help.

Following the explosions, state officials ordered residents living within a mile of the site to evacuate immediately, said River Valley Organizing Development Director Emily Wright, who lives a few miles from the disaster site. Many East Palestine community members sheltered in a local high school as they had nowhere else to go. Residents in other areas in Ohio surrounding the site and in Beaver County, Pennsylvania were also told to evacuate.

To view the entire announcement, click HERE.

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