Editorial: How can we ensure an East Palestine, Ohio, rail disaster doesn’t happen in Illinois?

Man-made disasters come with an inevitable question. What preventable mistakes, what selfish neglect or lack of oversight, helped set the table for this catastrophe?

That’s certainly the case with the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in eastern Ohio that turned the small town of East Palestine into a knot of dread.

The Feb. 3 derailment ignited a fire that sent massive plumes of smoke into the air. Residents were forced to evacuate, and later authorities channeled hazardous chemicals from the tankers to a trench, where the toxic fumes were burned off into the air in a controlled release.

Residents of East Palestine are trying to get back to normal, while at the same time worrying about long-term fallout. They’re wondering whether their drinking water is safe, or whether the area’s soil and waterways have been permanently contaminated.

In Illinois, a separate follow-up question is worth asking. Could such a devastating disaster happen here?

The short answer is yes, though what’s maddening is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Illinois is uniquely vulnerable in part because of the sheer volume of freight rail traffic that moves through the state every day, particularly through the Chicago region. Chicago is the nation’s preeminent rail hub, with as many as 1,300 freight and passenger trains moving through the city each day. One out of every four freight trains in America passes through Chicago.

That volume could expand with the proposed merger of the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads, which would create the only railroad linking Canada, Mexico and the U.S. mayors of several northwest suburbs potentially affected by the merger say the deal would ratchet up freight rail traffic by 300% on Metra’s Milwaukee West line.

The amount of hazardous materials transported via rail Illinois is considerable — in 2019, nearly 10 million tons of hazardous materials were moved on Illinois rail lines. Notably, the Norfolk Southern freight train carrying vinyl chloride and other hazardous materials that derailed in eastern Ohio began its journey in downstate Madison.

How often do derailments involving toxic chemicals occur? More often than you’d think. The Hill, a media company that focuses on Washington politics, recently analyzed Federal Railroad Administration data and reported that 106 derailments involving hazardous materials have occurred on U.S. rail tracks since 2015. Last year, the railway agency documented 10 derailments involving hazardous materials across the country.

The risk is real, which would suggest a glaring need to maximize safeguards for the transport of toxic chemicals via rail, as well as the need for the rail industry to embrace and implement those safeguards. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.

For years, railroad industry leaders have lobbied to stymie regulations aimed at improving freight train safety, particularly tougher rules on the rail shipment of hazardous materials. According to Bloomberg, one federal proposal that the rail industry fought was the use of electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems that would bring freight trains to a quick, safe stop by applying brakes across the span of the train, rather than each car individually.

Despite rail industry lobbying, the Obama administration enacted the brake mandates in 2015. When Donald Trump took over the White House, railroad industry leaders renewed their opposition to the new brake rules, and Trump later rescinded the brake mandates. The rail industry also persuaded the federal government to delay until 2029 the phase-in of safer tank cars for hazardous materials transport, a change from the original 2025 phase-in date.

The last thing this country’s economy needs is overregulation. But what the railroad industry has been resisting through the years isn’t overregulation, it’s common sense rule-making that safeguards communities along rail lines, rail workers, and the industry as a whole. The alternative is a status quo in which another hazardous materials derailment devastates a community, and railroad executives find themselves again having to react to a horrific disaster and defend their actions.

No community in the U.S. — no community in the Chicago area or the rest of Illinois — should have to endure what East Palestine has endured.

No one is asking the railroad industry to acquiesce to burdensome rules with dubious potential for enhancing safety. But smart, well-researched regulation that significantly safeguards the movement by rail of toxic chemicals across the country is something rail companies should embrace, rather than resist.

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