Energy & Environment

Environmental groups call on Buttigieg to restore Obama-era train brake rule

An emergency crew works at the site of a Norfolk Southern train derailment in Van Buren Township, Mich., near Detroit, on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. (Andy Morrison/Detroit News via AP)

A coalition of environmental organizations on Thursday called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to act on a rail safety rule scrapped by the Trump administration, arguing failure to enforce it increases the likelihood of environmental rail disasters.

The Trump administration in 2017 repealed a 2015 rule that would require some trains carrying hazardous substances to upgrade their braking systems to electronically-controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes. In 2018, representatives for Earthjustice, Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Washington Environmental Council and Stand filed an administrative appeal of the Trump administration’s replacement rule, arguing it was based on outdated impact analyses that predate the current level of crude oil being carried by rail.

In the Thursday letter, representatives for the organizations urged the Biden administration to act on the still-pending appeal.

“It should not take a tragedy like the recent hazardous train derailment in Ohio and the devastation it brought to the community of East Palestine, with water contamination, air pollution, and harm to human health, to turn attention to this issue again,” the letter states. “The pending administrative appeal presents an opportunity for your department to review and make a new determination of whether the costs of modern braking systems for high hazardous flammable trains outweigh the benefits of accident and harm prevention.”

“If we do not hear from you with a timeline for such a response, we will consider taking legal action, but we would prefer to work this out with you,” they added.

In an interview with The Hill, letter author and Earthjustice managing attorney Kristen Boyles said it was unclear whether the rule would have prevented the derailment of a train carrying several cars of vinyl chloride in East Palestine, Ohio.

However, she said, failure to update the braking systems to reflect the amount of hazardous materials currently carried by rail only increases the odds of further disasters.

Federal regulations did not classify the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio as a “high-hazard flammable” train. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) called the distinction “absurd” Wednesday and called for Congress to amend the statute.

A Department of Transportation spokesperson noted that a provision in the 2015 FAST Act required an independent analysis that determined the cost of the ECP rule outweighed the benefits.

“As a result, it is much harder for USDOT to advance a rule in the same configuration — due to threats of litigation and opposition in Congress,” the spokesperson wrote.

“USDOT supports efforts to expand safety regulations and will look to the [National Transportation Security Board] report on the cause of the derailment to take action that will ensure accountability and improved safety.”

Updated at 5:28 p.m.

Tags Donald Trump Mike DeWine Obama Pete Buttigieg

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