Ohio's Toxic Train Disaster Follows ‘Perfect Storm’ Of Cuts, Deregulation

In 2007, railroad giant Norfolk Southern Corp. boasted it was making “railroad history” by operating the nation’s first freight train equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes — a modern technology that the company noted could make trains safer by significantly decreasing how long it took them to stop.  

Norfolk Southern said at the time that it planned to add ECP brakes — which the company said had “the potential to reduce train stopping distances by as much as 60 percent over conventional air brake systems” — to dozens of locomotives and cars in its coal train fleet.

Fast forward to 2014, when the Obama administration unveiled new safety rules that, among other things, required ECP brakes on trains hauling a certain amount of crude oil and other so-called “high-hazard flammable” materials. The Association of American Railroads, an industry lobbying group of which Norfolk Southern is a member, fiercely opposed the regulations. 

“ECP brakes would be extremely costly without providing an offsetting benefit,” the trade group wrote in public comments on the rule. It argued the push to mandate the technology lacked a safety justification.

At the urging of AAR and other rail interests, the industry-friendly Trump administration repealed the Obama-era ECP brake rule in 2018. 

The railroad industry’s history of fighting stricter safety regulations, which investigative news outlet The Lever first reported last week, is taking center stage in the wake of a fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in rural eastern Ohio. 

Officials are in the early stages of investigating what went wrong in East Palestine. But the derailment has sparked fear in rail towns across the country, and both industry experts and lawmakers have renewed calls for stronger safety standards for trains transporting hazardous materials before another similar disaster strikes.

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic and flammable materials careened off the tracks in East Palestine, a town of approximately 5,000 people on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Of the 50 train cars that either derailed or were damaged in the resulting fire, 20 contained hazardous material, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That toxic cargo included hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, a common organic chemical used in the production of plastics that has been linked to several types of cancer.

The wreckage burned for several days, and on Feb. 5, authorities ordered an urgent evacuation for everyone within one mile of the site due to the potential for “a catastrophic tanker failure which could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile.” To prevent such an explosion, officials eventually conducted what they described as a “controlled burn” of vinyl chloride, releasing black clouds of phosgene, hydrogen chloride and other gases into the air. Phosgene was used as a chemical weapon during World War I, and exposure to it can cause vomiting, eye irritation and breathing difficulty.

Federal and state agencies have monitored air and water quality since the incident. The EPA says air samples have not detected elevated levels of vinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride or other toxins in the community, including inside homes that have undergone screenings. But contaminants have been detected in the Ohio River.

In a letter to the CEO of Norfolk Southern, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) on Tuesday accused the company of mismanaging the derailment and refusing to explore alternatives to venting and burning toxic chemicals. 

“Prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion,” Shapiro wrote. 

Others have similarly condemned the railroad’s decision. 

“We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open,” Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, told an Ohio TV station. 

Hazmat On The Tracks

Preliminary information indicates a mechanical issue on a rail car axle triggered the disaster in Ohio, according to Michael Graham, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, a government agency that investigates civil transportation accidents. Security camera footage obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows flames and sparks beneath one of the cars approximately 20 miles before it derailed, raising questions about when the crew would have known about a problem and why the train wasn’t stopped sooner. 

When HuffPost asked about the accident and the company’s history of opposing stricter safety rules, Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said the company is a member of AAR’s Tank Car Committee that “sets standards that meet and even exceed DOT regulations.” He referred HuffPost to AAR for “industry-level questions on ECP brakes” and to the NTSB for information about the derailment. 

In public statements, company officials have said that “safety is No. 1 for Norfolk Southern” and that they are “committed to East Palestine today and in the future.”

The Obama-era brake rule would not have applied to the type of train that derailed in Ohio. But Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration, and other rail experts told the Lever that the derailment would have been less severe if the train had the upgraded brake technology.

NTSB confirmed to HuffPost that the Ohio train was not equipped with ECP brakes. 

A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 6, 2023.
A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 6, 2023.

A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 6, 2023.

Along with lacking the modern brakes that Norfolk Southern once embraced, NTSB said the Ohio train did not qualify as a “high-hazard flammable train” — a federal classification that triggers speed limits and other safety requirements. 

As the Lever reported, when the Obama administration was drafting new safety standards for oil trains, NTSB advocated for a broader definition of “high-hazard flammable trains” that covered Class 2 flammable gasses. Vinyl chloride falls in that category. 

“We believe the definition should include a broad range of hazardous materials,” Christopher Hart, then the acting chairman of NTSB, wrote to the Department of Transportation in 2014. He went on to highlight internal guidance from the Association of American Railroads that he said demonstrated “that the railroad industry recognizes that additional safety precautions, including speed restrictions, are needed for key trains that transport any hazardous materials.”

The Obama administration ultimately settled on a narrow definition that applies only to trains carrying a certain amount of Class 3 flammables like crude oil and ethanol. Some environmentalists slammed the standards as “weak” and watered down. 

‘There’s Just Less Attention’

The Ohio disaster has led to renewed calls for stronger safety standards for trains transporting hazardous materials, nearly a billion tons of which travel by rail each year in the U.S.

In his letter to Norfolk Southern, Shapiro noted the company’s “well known opposition to modernized regulations” and said he has urged the Biden administration to reexamine what qualifies as a “high-hazard flammable train” and the need for more advanced safety equipment aboard such trains.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said it is “absurd” that the Norfolk Southern train didn’t meet the high-hazard classification.

Democrats and Republicans have both criticized Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for his handling of the accident.

“We need Congressional inquiry and direct action from @PeteButtigieg to address this tragedy,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) wrote in a Twitter post. 

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) responded that he “fully agreed,” Omar asked, “So do you support reinstating the rail safety rules that Trump repealed—while Norfolk Southern executives made millions and spent billions on stock buybacks— and expanding the safety rules to cover trains that carry these chemicals?”

Cruz did not respond. 

Cars from the derailed Norfolk Southern freight train are scattered along the tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 9, 2023.
Cars from the derailed Norfolk Southern freight train are scattered along the tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 9, 2023.

Cars from the derailed Norfolk Southern freight train are scattered along the tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 9, 2023.

Buttigieg finally weighed in on Monday, after 10 days of silence, writing that “I continue to be concerned about the impacts” of the derailment. He said DOT would look at the results of NSTB’s investigation, once final, and “use all relevant authorities to ensure accountability and continue to support safety.” 

Asked if the Biden administration has considered restoring the Obama-era brake rule, a DOT spokesperson indicated the agency is handcuffed by legislation that Congress passed in 2015. 

Republicans in the House and Senate required a cost-benefit analysis that allowed the Trump administration to repeal the rule in 2017, which now makes it very challenging to reinstate the rule,” the DOT official wrote, adding that the Federal Railroad Association “is exploring the potential for usage of ECP brake equipment to improve railroad safety and braking performance, such as researching the potential development of other enabling technologies to support adoption.”

That mandated cost-benefit analysis ultimately concluded that the costs of the brake rule significantly outweighed the benefits — a finding that essentially forced Trump’s DOT to rescind the rule. 

Ross Grooters, a longtime locomotive engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United, told HuffPost that deregulation is part of a larger systemic crisis in the industry. Major railroads, including Norfolk Southern, have adopted a cost-cutting strategy called “precision-scheduled railroading,” which involves reducing railroad employees and increasing the length of trains. 

“It’s a perfect storm and there’s just less attention on the things that need to be paid attention to,” Grooters said. 

The Government Accountability Office found that staffing at the nation’s seven largest freight rail companies decreased approximately 28% from 2011 to 2021. The Ohio train that derailed had 150 cars, spanned more than 1 mile and had a crew of three people. Freight rail crews have declined from as many as seven after World War II to typically just two today. And railroads have sought to reduce that to a single engineer.  

Grooters is hopeful that the Ohio incident will result in necessary regulatory changes, but said workers have been trying unsuccessfully to draw attention to problems for years and that accidents like the one in Ohio are inevitable under current policies. 

“It’s not a matter of if, but kind of when and where,” Grooters said. “I would still say that’s true after East Palestine. … Unless we get these changes, we’re going to see increased derailments.” 

CORRECTION: This article previously contained errors about the characteristics and historical uses of vinyl chloride and phosgene.