The Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, was a national wake-up call that made people keenly aware of the dangerous toxic chemicals passing through their communities.

In the aftermath of this, and other rail freight catastrophes, the federal government implemented the Railway Safety Act of 2023. The legislative effort to deal with the railroad industry’s less-than-stellar safety record may be too late for residents who have fallen ill from water, soil, and airborne contaminants.

But, if there’s any silver lining, the federal government and local leaders understand they need to train first responders and provide them with personal protective equipment and disposable safety clothing.

The National Transportation Safety Board reports that 38 cars out of 150 derailed in East Palestine, a village of 4,700 residents. The freight was en route to Conway, PA, after leaving Madison, Ill. A fire ensued sending toxic fumes into the air as chemicals soaked the soil and tainted the water supply. The hazardous materials included vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol mono butyl ethers, among others.

Residents reported significant symptoms and at least seven investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also fell sick, despite guidelines requiring them to wear personal protective equipment and clothing.

With 15,000 pounds of soil and 1.1 million gallons of water reportedly contaminated, a spotlight has been shined on the railroads' inadequate safety practices.

Railroads Suffer Too Many Toxic Derailments

The U.S. Department of Transportation noted more than 12,400 train derailments during the last 10 years. Approximately 6,600 rail tank cars were loaded with hazardous materials and 348 spilled, creating a human and environmental danger. The DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration also logged an average of 1,475 annual derailments from 2005 to 2021. These largely flew under the radar until the East Palestine disaster. Since then, the following crashes have received heightened media attention.

  • Wyndmere, North Dakota: Within 12 hours of the East Palestine crash, 31 of 70 Canadian Pacific rail cars went off the tracks. The cargo included liquid asphalt, ethylene glycol, and propylene. Hazardous chemicals were reportedly released into the air, as well as seeping into the soil.
  • San Bernardino, California: Also on the same day, a Union Pacific transport hauling iron ore derailed. Upwards of 55 cars went off the tracks at more than 80 mph. Although the ore is not necessarily considered an environmental hazard, substantial fuel leaks required Hazmat teams to be called to the scene.
  • Raymond, Minnesota: Residents of the rural community 110 miles west of Minneapolis were forced to evacuate their homes in the middle of the night when a train carrying ethanol derailed and burst into flames. The fiery wreckage had some first responders banging on people’s doors at 2 am to alert residents about the danger of fire and toxic fumes. Others worked to contain the blaze.
  • Swinomish Tribal Reservation: A BNSF train derailed in Washington State, dumping 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel on tribal lands near Puget Sound. The spill endangered drinking water and wildlife in the area.

The data about train crashes and the dangerous hazardous materials that are being spilled across the country are concerning. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics recorded a modest reduction in train wrecks from 1,766 in 2012 to 1,743 in 2022. The number of crashes appears to be trending upward this year. There are reportedly three derailments every day in the U.S. with too many requiring the CDC and Hazmat cleanup crews.

Congress reacted to the recent incidents by pushing through the Railway Safety Act of 2023. But questions about the measure persist. Will it make an impact on ailing residents, rail workers, the environment, first responders, and the Hazmat workers tasked with removing dangerous contaminants?

What is the Safe Rail Act?

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 codifies a series of precautions that task railroad operations with taking heightened safety measures when transporting hazardous materials. The legislation comes as a direct reaction to the devastating derailment in East Palestine, OH, and the impact it had on human health, air pollution, drinking water, and wildlife.

According to a fact sheet released by sponsoring senators, railroads must now adhere to the following requirements.

  • Emergency Response Plans: Railroad operations must now give states advanced warning that cars will be carrying hazardous materials through their communities. The measure calls for eliminating blocked crossings so that rail cars do not stop in populated areas. It also includes new guidelines regarding the size, weight, and strength of cars carrying potential toxins.
  • Wheel Bearing Failures: The National Transportation Safety Board reported that a faulty wheel bearing contributed to the East Palestine derailment. The measure addresses mechanical failures by setting new standards for equipment maintenance and parts replacements. Automated effect detectors are expected to be placed along the railroad tracks to provide advanced warning of similar mechanical failures.
  • Hazardous Materials Inspections: Trains moving hazardous freight are to be inspected by trained professionals at regular intervals. The move targets imminent equipment malfunctions.
  • Two-Person Crews: Railroads have reportedly reduced the number of employees who comprise crews even though the number of freight cars has increased. Some are operated by a single railroad worker. The measure requires companies to operate with a trained two-person minimum.
  • Accountability: The measure increases the ability of the U.S. DOT to level fines against railroad corporations that fail to follow fundamental safety procedures. The DOT can now fine companies from $225,000 to 1 percent of their annual operating income.

The Railway Safety Act provides $22 million to the Federal Railroad Administration to develop a wayside defect detection system that would alert train operators about impeding mechanical failures. It sends $5 million to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to take steps to mitigate derailments of trains moving hazardous materials.

It also addresses the effects of toxic agents on local law enforcement, emergency crews, and the Hazmat teams put in harm’s way by these train wrecks. Improved education and training about best practices and the use of personal protective equipment as well as disposable safety clothing are being addressed by measure. The law increases Hazmat registration fees on railroads to pay for grants to better train first responders and emergency cleanup crews.

Although Washington, DC, acted at the legislative level, the possibility of a derailment and hazardous materials spill remains a clear and present danger. Communities along freight transportation routes would be well-served to train all emergency responders. It’s also critical to provide them with personal protective equipment and disposable safety clothing in the event of a catastrophe.