Bipartisan Senate group introduces rail safety bill in response to East Palestine derailment
Washington — A bipartisan group of six senators, including the two from Ohio, introduced rail safety legislation Wednesday aimed at preventing future derailments following the toxic train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, that sparked serious health and environmental concerns for the area's residents.
Called the Railway Safety Act of 2023, the plan would require rail carriers to give advance notice to state emergency response officials about what they're transporting, increase rail car inspections to ensure those carrying hazardous materials are inspected at regular intervals and require crews of at least two people for every train.
The bill would also bolster the monitoring of wheel bearings, which the National Transportation Safety Board found overheated in the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine. It would impose new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride, which was in five of the tank cars that derailed, and heighten fines for rail carriers for wrongdoing.
The legislation is introduced by Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican; Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman, both Democrats; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican; and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican.
"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 in a statement. "Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine and Steubenville and Sandusky."
Vance said that through the legislation, Congress can prevent another derailment like that one in East Palestine.
"We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind," he said in a statement.
The bipartisan nature of the measure stands out from the partisan sniping surrounding the East Palestine train derailment. Republicans have criticized the Biden administration for what they believe was a slow response to the disaster, and some have called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who visited the derailment site for the first time last week, to resign.
GOP Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida, joined by eight other Republican lawmakers, introduced a resolution Wednesday condemning Buttigieg and urging him to step down.
But Democrats have pointed the finger at former President Donald Trump and his administration for rolling back rail safety measures put in place during the Obama administration, including rescinding a 2015 rule requiring trains carrying highly flammable materials to have advanced braking systems, withdrawing a plan to require two-member crews on freight trains and stopping regular safety audits of railroads.
While the bill's bipartisan backing is a positive step for advancement in the Senate, it's unclear whether it can pass the GOP-controlled House. Still, there is an appetite on Capitol Hill for action in response to the East Palestine derailment.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called on Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw to answer questions from the Senate. Shaw agreed to testify before the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee on March 9.
"Norfolk Southern, you've broken your trust with the American people," Schumer told reporters Tuesday. "The American people and of course the people of East Palestine deserve answers."
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, is also set to visit East Palestine on Wednesday.
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