EPA, DOT to increase accountability, safety in wake of Ohio chemical train derailment

Media Contacts
Lisa Frank

Executive Director, Environment America; Vice President and D.C. Director, The Public Interest Network

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

PITTSBURGH – The federal government announced new measures on Tuesday to increase safety and accountability in the freight rail industry following the derailment earlier this month in East Palestine, Ohio, of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered Norfolk Southern to “conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment.” As part of this legally binding order, the company will be required to pay all costs associated with the cleanup of the release of toxic chemicals, including reimbursing the EPA for any public funds spent. 

The Department of Transportation (DOT) also announced steps to increase the safety of rail transportation of hazardous materials and asked Congress to go further. The DOT has committed to advancing a staffing rule to require at least two train crewmembers for most railroad operations, initiating new inspection programs for trains carrying hazardous materials, and deploying Bipartisan Infrastructure Law resources to modernize rail infrastructure. The agency also said it would “pursue further rulemaking” on high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT) and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP). The DOT also called on the rail industry and Congress to take additional measures to increase safety and accountability. 

Despite carrying numerous hazardous chemicals, the train that derailed in Ohio was not considered a “high-hazard flammable train” subject to increased safety rules under the current definition. It also was not equipped with ECP brakes. While the cause of the derailment is still under review, ECP brakes can greatly reduce the risk of crashes. 

In response, Lisa Frank, Executive Director of Environment America’s Washington Legislative Office said:

“It is critical that we clean up this disaster thoroughly. Residents of East Palestine are rightfully concerned that the effects of the toxic chemicals released into their community could linger for years if not properly handled. Thanks to the EPA for taking a strong position that will help ensure Norfolk Southern is fully accountable to the community.

“We also need to do more to prevent the next disaster. The EPA and DOT should increase the safety of the trains that carry hazardous materials through our communities. And, we need to reduce how often we use these hazardous materials, thus reducing the frequency of which we need to transport them. If we used less plastic, we’d need less vinyl chloride, one of the major pollutants in the East Palestine disaster. That’s a change worth making.”

Matt Casale, PIRG’s Environment Campaigns Director issued the following statement: 

“No community should have to go through what East Palestine is currently experiencing. We are grateful to the EPA and DOT for taking important steps toward holding the industry accountable and for highlighting some of the steps we must take to increase freight rail safety. The EPA’s order follows the same principle we all teach our kids: When you make a mess, you need to clean it up. 

“But we need to go further and move faster. We can’t wait until the next disaster to update critical safety rules. The DOT and Congress should immediately expand the definition of high-hazard flammable trains to include all trains carrying materials that could explode and put communities at risk. They also should initiate rulemaking to require trains carrying hazardous substances to upgrade to ECP brakes.”