Derailed Ohio Train Prompts Calls for Senate Investigation

February 16, 2023

Both Democratic and Republican Senators are calling for a Congressional investigation into the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that sparked a fire and a miles-wide toxic chemical spill.  

Hundreds of townspeople were evacuated after the train derailed on February 3 and the rail operator, Norfolk Southern, was forced to vent and burn carcinogenic chemicals from crashed rail cars to prevent an explosion.

The burning chemical was identified as vinyl chloride. It’s a flammable gas used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, plastic kitchenware and vehicles’ interior features such as upholstery.

The EPA has stated that “inhaled vinyl chloride has been shown to increase the risk of a rare form of liver cancer in humans,” and there are other potential effects from simple exposure to it.

There have also been questions about the safety of the drinking water in and around East Palestine, which is a roughly 90-minute drive from Cleveland. On Tuesday, residents were urged to drink only bottled water. But then on Wednesday, following the latest water testing, the office of Gov. Mike DeWine (R) told residents it was “safe to drink.”

Ohio Senators J.D. Vance (R) and Sherrod Brown (D), along with Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey (D) and John Fetterman (D), sent a letter Wednesday to the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The Senators stressed safety concerns as the agency conducts its own investigation into the train derailment.

“Hundreds of families were forced to flee their homes, and they are now rightfully concerned about long-term health risks due to the Norfolk Southern train derailment,” the Senators wrote. “No American family should be forced to face the horror of fleeing their homes because hazardous materials have spilled or caught fire in their community.”

The four Senators also wrote to EPA Administrator Michael Regan expressing their concerns about the train’s release of hazardous materials.

Vance and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) separately wrote to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the DOT’s oversight of the U.S. freight train system and “how it balances building a safe, resilient rail industry across our country in relation to building a hyper-efficient one with minimal direct human input.”

The Obama Administration had imposed a requirement on trains hauling flammable materials for electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes. The ECP system creates a redundancy in the braking system and allows trains to apply brakes to all of their cars simultaneously. However, the Trump Administration revoked the requirement in 2018.

“The Department’s analysis shows that the expected costs of requiring ECP brakes would be significantly higher than the expected benefits of the requirement,” according to a Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration statement.

Norfolk Southern has defended the integrity of the train in the Ohio derailment, including its braking system. Spokesperson Thomas Crosson told Politico that the weight distribution of the Ohio train “was uniform throughout” and that a braking locomotive was placed mid-train to help it stop properly.

A number of Senate committees have jurisdiction over different facets of the train derailment, including the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has oversight of the EPA, and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has oversight of rail safety.

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