In the wake of the train derailment that spilled hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio, community members and leaders across the nation have discussed elevated safety concerns. This document from the Congressional Research Service may be of interest. It details the accident, the federal investigation and response, pertinent industry practices, and past legislative responses to rail safety incidents. The current response includes both an investigation by the NTSB and cleanup monitoring by the EPA. Further action by federal, state, or local lawmakers will depend on public will.
Rural communities are particularly vulnerable to train derailments. Nearly three quarters of route-miles of track are in rural areas. Rural derailments and similar disasters like pipeline spills also take place farther from emergency response personnel. Communities can better protect and prepare themselves by being aware of what can be done and by whom.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is a federal agency responsible for conducting investigations into significant accidents in transportation, including rail. Outside of determining likely cause and issuing recommendations, its Transportation Disaster Assistance (TDA) Division offers resources to individuals involved in accidents and their failies.
Lack of coordination or unclear jurisdiction can hinder an emergency response. The EPA’s page on the East Palestine derailment shows the resources and research work made available following the agency’s involvement. The more quickly all relevant agencies – including State EPAs – are able to act, the more capable they are of safeguard impacted people. Community leaders can facilitate this by contacting their elected officials and ensuring local and national actors are coordinated and in frequent communication.
Other relevant agencies include the Federal Railroad Administration’s Hazardous Materials Division, which oversees hazardous materials shipped by rail, and USDOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which enforces regulations for all shipments of hazardous materials. PHMSA offers a number of grants to both government and non-profit applicants, including the HMEP Grant to develop and implement emergency plans and the ALERT Grant to train local emergency responders. Further details on each of these grants can be found here. On March 20, 2023, PHMSA announced $25 million in grants, with applications available at this link under Department of Transportation-PHMSA. A March 21, 2023 follow-up to this announcement can be read here.
It is additionally worth noting proposals for bipartisan legislation as a result of the derailment in East Palestine. The Railway Safety Act of 2023, introduced by a group including both of Ohio’s Senators, calls for tighter safety regulation, greater fines for wrongdoing, larger FRA and PHMSA budgets, and more.
Any reform in Congress will require bipartisan support. The relevant committees are the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials (House of Representatives) and the Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation and the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight, and Ports (Senate).