Ohio Chemical Train Disaster Spotlights Vacancy at US Regulator

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(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden has yet to nominate someone to the lead the federal agency that regulates the transport of hazardous materials, including the toxic chemicals that spilled following the fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern Corp. train in Ohio this month.

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The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has been without an administrator since Biden took office in January 2021. That vacancy has come into focus as the White House tries to quell a political crisis over its response to the Feb. 3 crash that resulted in the release of a soup of toxic chemicals.

“You’ve got no one officially nominated in charge and I think that’s a problem,” said Brigham McCown, who led the agency during the George W. Bush administration. “If there was a train accident, I would have been on site in 24 hours figuring out what was going on and how to fix it. That’s how you reassure the public.”

The administration has faith in the abilities of the agency’s deputy administrator, who has been acting as the agency’s leader, a White House official said in a statement. The official didn’t address why Biden hasn’t nominated a PHMSA head.

“Since day one, Tristan Brown has been capably leading the agency, which was one of the first to arrive in East Palestine to support emergency response efforts,” according to the White House.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also is charged with regulating train car design and safety specifications. It’s among those supporting the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the derailment.

The agency said in a statement it was on the scene of the derailment within hours and that the administration and the transportation secretary have confidence in PHMSA’s current leadership.

Brown, PHMSA’s deputy administrator, and Amit Bose, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, plan to travel to the site Wednesday as part of a team requested by the NTSB, following decontamination of the railcars involved in the crash, a PHMSA official said.

Biden’s failure to nominate a leader for the agency coincides with increasing scrutiny of the administration’s response to the derailment, including criticism senior leadership was slow to publicly respond to the crash.

“It is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up,” Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said Thursday in regard to a visit to the site by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan.

The administration said officials in leadership positions stayed away from the crash scene to avoid detracting from the work of emergency responders who needed to devote their full attention to the effort.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting the people of East Palestine every step of the way, and holding Norfolk Southern accountable,” the White House said in a statement Friday.

The administration said its response has been robust, noting derailment teams from the EPA and Transportation Department arrived on site within hours of the incident. The White House announced Friday it was also deploying the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct public health testing and assessments.

(Updates with information about PHMSA site visit in eighth paragraph.)

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