Opinion: Congress must require change to avoid more rail disasters
The rail disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, is not an isolated incident. It could happen anywhere in America — including right here in Northern California.
For years, companies such as Norfolk Southern have spent millions lobbying against safety reforms that would protect communities from derailments and the ensuing environmental and economic ruin they cause. As a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I’ve introduced legislation to implement many of the safety reforms that Norfolk Southern and others have lobbied against.
We can’t let these disasters continue. In Ohio, 38 cars derailed, and a toxic fire ensued. Hazardous materials were released into the air, surface soil and surface waters. Congress must stop aiding and abetting rail companies as they put profits before people.
Californians can sympathize with the residents of East Palestine. A 1991 train derailment in Dunsmuir spilled 19,000 gallons of herbicide into the Sacramento River, killing nearly every fish 12 miles down the river. In 2017, in my congressional district, a derailment in Benicia nearly inundated the surrounding community with hazardous materials. Thankfully, a tragedy was narrowly avoided, but it was the sixth such incident in the area in the previous five years.
My district also includes parts of Contra Costa County, home to three of the Bay Area’s four working oil refineries. A derailment with hazardous materials near these sites could create a public health and environmental catastrophe.
If Congress continues abdicating its responsibility to pass new rail safety legislation, then we are doomed to see the events in East Palestine continue to play out in other cities across America.
The rail industry has already shown that it values profits over safety. Norfolk Southern made $4.8 billion in profit in 2022. Shamefully, they used $4.7 billion to support stock buybacks and dividends instead of safety reforms. Additionally, the rail industry has spent $254 million over the last decade lobbying to kill legislation that would reduce the volatility of hazardous materials transported via rail, increase safety standards and implement modern technologies to prevent derailments.
Part of that $254 million was spent lobbying against my “Crude by Rail Volatility Standard Act,” which I introduced following major oil tank car derailments in Virginia, West Virginia and Illinois, and a derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people. Rail companies used their air-tight grip on countless members of Congress to ensure my bill never even received a hearing. Imagine how much good would come if the rail companies spent that $254 million implementing new technologies to promote safety instead of buying off lawmakers.
Rail safety reform in the federal government has been mired in cowardice, neglect and greed for decades. Today, there are finally strong bipartisan calls for reform that must be immediately acted upon.
The first action we must take is to reimplement the Obama-era rule that required all freight trains carrying hazardous chemicals to use electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes that can stop a train in 50% of the distance compared to the current braking systems, which lend their technology from the Civil War era. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration withdrew this requirement in 2018 and allowed the rail companies to continue using antiquated braking systems.
At a time when the rail companies are making record profits, the federal government must require them to implement proven reforms to ensure communities across America will be protected from disaster. Every day that goes by without increased oversight and reform of the rail industry is a choice to put our communities and citizens at risk.
I will continue using my role on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to speak out on this matter and to protect the communities in my congressional district and throughout our nation from becoming victims of a rail industry that values profits over human lives and safety.
Rep. John Garamendi’s congressional district includes portions of Contra Costa and Solano counties.