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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says he is taking steps to impose stricter regulations on freight trains carrying toxic chemicals, like the one that derailed and burst into flames near East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month. forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes and raising the environmental level. and health concerns.
It is also asking Congress to “untie” the agency’s hands over legislation that weakened the Department of Transportation’s ability to enforce certain safety and liability rules.
Buttigieg accused the rail industry of employing “vigorous resistance” to increased safety measures, which he said has thwarted efforts to harden tank cars and require better braking on trains carrying volatile fuels. , chemicals and other toxic substances.
“Profit and convenience should never outweigh the safety of the American people,” Buttigieg said Monday. “We at USDOT are doing everything in our power to improve rail safety, and we urge the rail industry to do the same, while inviting Congress to work with us to raise the bar.”
Safety advocates say Buttigieg has been slow to respond to the rail disaster and that the DOT has been slow to adopt new rail safety regulations in his two years in office. Buttigieg tried to blame the industry, suggesting that his heavy lobbying led Congress to limit DOT’s ability to act.
Republicans, especially, have said Buttigieg’s response to the disaster is lacking.
Buttigieg wants newer tank cars, better brakes and higher fines
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Buttigieg, who has faced some criticism for not visiting the crash site, says he has stayed away to allow the National Transportation Safety Board to take the lead in investigating the cause and emergency management to focus on the immediate response. He says that he hopes to visit the site sometime in the future, but no date has been set.
Speaking to reporters Monday night, Buttigieg said he wants rail companies to speed up the phase-in of tougher, more puncture-resistant tank cars carrying volatile or toxic substances. The DOT mandated that the new tanker cars be in use and that the older and weaker ones be phased out by 2025. But Congress pushed the deadline for the new tanker cars back to 2029.
Buttigieg also wants Congress to increase the maximum amount DOT can fine railroads for safety violations. He says the fines right now are so low that he worries big railroad corporations will write them off as a cost of doing business.
“The maximum fine we can issue, even for egregious violations involving hazardous materials that result in loss of life, is just over $225,000,” he said. “For a multi-billion dollar rail company that posts billions in profits every year, it’s just not enough to have an adequate deterrent effect.”
Buttigieg added that DOT is considering reviewing how it classifies certain toxic and volatile chemicals. While the derailed Norfolk Southern train was deemed to be carrying hazardous materials, it was not considered a “high risk flammable train” or HHFT, which requires certain security protocols are followed.
And it says it wants to go ahead with the requirement that trains carrying such hazardous materials be equipped with a top-tier electronically controlled braking system. But Congress mandated that a cost-benefit analysis be done before it could take effect, and then in 2017 the Trump administration repeated the rule.
“We cannot treat these disasters as inevitable or as a cost of doing business,” Buttigieg said. “There is a window of opportunity with Congress now after what happened in eastern Palestine that I don’t think existed before, and our goal is to use that window of opportunity to raise the bar” on security.