One year ago, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, displacing a community, jeopardizing health, harming the local environment and exposing gaps in our rail safety laws.
The derailment and subsequent fire of tanker cars carrying vinyl chloride led Norfolk Southern to release and burn these toxic chemicals to prevent a dangerous explosion. As a result, the town was forced to evacuate all residents within a one-mile radius, upending thousands of lives.
Thanks to the quick actions of the train crew, who quickly detached the derailed cars and moved the rest of the train to safety, no lives were lost. But the event contaminated the soil, water and air in East Palestine, with people reporting toxic smells and physical effects for weeks after the derailment. To this day, many of East Palestine’s 4,700 residents are afraid to drink the water, and many are experiencing health issues or negative financial effects as a result of the derailment.
This tragic derailment didn’t have to happen. But to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, Congress must address rail safety. While the East Palestine incident has gotten the most attention, it was by no means the only freight rail accident that occurred last year.
In 2023, there were more than 1,500 Class I train accidents or incidents, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That includes a BNSF derailment in Raymond, Minn., that forced the town to evacuate; a CSX derailment in Livingston, Ky., that forced families to evacuate on Thanksgiving; and another BNSF derailment on the Swinomish Reservation in Skagit County, Wash., that spilled 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel near Padilla Bay in my district. On average, about three rail accidents occur every day in the U.S.
Since the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Democrats have been calling for a rail safety hearing and rail safety legislation. Members from both chambers and both parties put forward legislation that would make meaningful improvements to rail safety. Unfortunately, these bills have not yet been brought to the floor for a vote, despite broad bipartisan and public support.
That must change. Congress can and must hold the freight rail industry to high safety standards that keep people and communities safe. We cannot continue to let dysfunction on Capitol Hill and gridlock stand in the way of progress toward a safer transportation system for communities around the country.
In the month following the accident, the Department of Transportation made recommendations to update safety standards in the freight railroad industry. In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board has dozens of open recommendations that would strengthen freight rail safety. It’s time for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to act. And we don’t have to look far for solutions.
Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Ohio) and Rep. Chris Deluzio (D-Penn.) have been tireless advocates for the safety of the community in East Palestine and those like it around the country. They have each introduced legislation that would hold freight railroads to higher safety standards, increase support for hazardous-material training for first responders and increase fines for safety violations.
With the passage of these bills, residents in communities like East Palestine, Raymond, the Swinomish Reservation and others across the country can live in proximity to freight rail tracks without fear of derailments uprooting their lives — and the public would not be forced to bear the costs of train derailments.
These are reasonable reforms supported by members of both parties. It’s time for Congress to work together to get this legislation across the finish line. The one-year anniversary of the East Palestine derailment should be a reminder of what Congress can achieve for people and communities, not another example of how it can fail them.
Rick Larsen represents Washington’s 2nd District and is the ranking member of the House Transportation Committee.
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