Federal agency urges railroads to review how they share hazmat info in wake of Ohio train derailment

Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images
EAST PALESTINE, OH – FEBRUARY 14: Workers remove contaminated dirt near the railroad tracks on February 14, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. A train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed on February 3, releasing toxic fumes and forcing evacuation of residents.

An agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT) sent a notice to railroads Friday to urge them to review how they share information about transporting hazardous materials in the aftermath of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. 

The DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) said it sent a safety advisory notice in light of the derailment to emphasize to railroads that they need to appropriately plan for emergencies and share information about the available resources for an emergency response. 

It also said those engaged in rail transportation of hazmat should take further actions to ensure emergency responders have the equipment they need to respond to these types of situations. 

“PHMSA may take additional action on this issue in the future if investigations reveal that improvements in the emergency response planning process are necessary to reduce the impacts of hazmat transportation accidents,” the notice reads. 

The agency said it is concerned emergency responders did not have access to the AskRail system, which was created by the freight industry to give emergency responders information they need about railcars moving hazardous materials, when addressing the East Palestine derailment. 

A Norfolk Southern train derailment early last month allowed for many toxic chemicals to escape into the air and required the nearby community to evacuate for about five days. One of the chemicals was vinyl chloride, an explosive, cancer-causing substance that needed to be burned as part of a “controlled release” to avoid a potential explosion. 

Officials said later last month that the air and water in the local community was safe, but some residents have reported experiencing rashes and difficulty breathing, among other symptoms. 

Residents and officials at the local, state and federal levels have called for holding Norfolk Southern accountable for the crash, and the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered it to clean up and pay for the effects of the crash. 

The PHMSA said in the notice that responders receiving accurate information in a timely manner is necessary for them to understand what risk is posed by the materials. 

The agency also pointed to grant programs that are available to assist with emergency preparedness and response training and encouraged railroads to take advantage of them. 

It noted that the DOT has urged all railroads to maintain emergency response plans for hazardous materials since 1993 and said properly maintaining and executing these plans can protect lives, property, health and the environment. 

The agency said railroads should determine if they should expand their plans to cover additional hazmat. They should also share those plans and the types of materials being transported with community emergency planners and proactively engage in exercises with communities to be prepared for any incident that may happen.

Tags Department of Transportation East Palestine East Palestine train derailment Environmental Protection Agency hazardous materials Norfolk Southern Ohio vinyl chloride

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