A wave of Republican criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of a train derailment that launched toxic chemicals into the air in East Palestine, Ohio, is set to culminate on Wednesday when former President Donald Trump visits the disaster-stricken village of 4,000.
So far, however, the broadsides have not turned into anything resembling action that could prevent crashes or break the GOP’s arm-in-arm embrace of the railroad industry, which relentlessly and successfully pushed to cut costs and roll back regulations during Trump’s four years in office.
“A lot of the folks who seem to find political opportunity there are among those who sided with the industry time and time again,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on a conference call with reporters Monday night when asked about Trump’s visit. “They have fought safety regulations on trains and hazmat tooth and nail.” (Buttigieg did not mention Trump by name, which would violate the Hatch Act limits on what federal employees can say about politics.)
Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), J.D. Vance (Ohio) and Ted Cruz (Texas) have all criticized Buttigieg’s handling of the derailment, but none responded to HuffPost on Tuesday when asked if they would support a set of rail safety measures Buttigieg rolled out or if they had alternative proposals.
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), a vocal Biden critic who represents East Palestine, on Tuesday dismissed immediate calls for stricter rail regulations, saying actions toward accountability will hinge on the findings of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the derailment.
“That will dictate whether there are laws, regulations that need to be changed, whether there were rules that were violated,” he said during a news conference in East Palestine. “We don’t know any of that yet, and we won’t know that until NTSB releases its report.”
The silence on actual safety proposals shows how GOP officials ― even those who claim to want to lead the party in a more populist direction, such as Rubio and Vance ― are reluctant to step back from the rail industry’s battle against additional safety measures, even in the wake of a significant disaster that has terrified East Palestine residents.
The nearly 2-mile Norfolk Southern train that derailed and caught fire on Feb. 3 was carrying toxic and flammable materials, including hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, a common organic chemical used in the production of plastics. Fearing a catastrophic explosion, authorities conducted what they described as a “controlled burn” of the vinyl chloride three days after the crash — a controversial decision that has left area residents to fear potential long-term health and environmental risks.
Indeed, Trump’s visit appears aimed more at criticizing President Joe Biden and Buttigieg and capitalizing on senior administration officials’ delayed public response to the crisis ― Buttigieg took 10 days to publicly acknowledge the derailment ― rather than offering any sort of assistance or policy proposal. (Trump could receive a heroes’ welcome. Columbiana County, where East Palestine is located, gave him more than 70% of its vote in the 2020 election.)
“You have a president going to Ukraine, and you have people in Ohio that are in desperate need of help,” Trump said at an event at a Hilton Hotel not far from his Mar-a-Lago social club in Florida.
The former president’s swooping in to politicize the disaster is unsurprising, especially now that he’s launched his bid for a second term as president. Nevertheless, Trump’s legacy of gutting regulations, including rail safety rules, and botching and politicizing federal disaster responses while in the White House makes any advice he might provide on the Ohio disaster ironic.
“The Trump administration rolled back and killed some regulations we had been working on; in many cases, they just stopped working on regulations altogether,” said Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration. “The impression that the safety apparatus got was that what industry wanted, industry got.”
In 2018, at the urging of railroad giants and industry lobbyists, the Trump administration repealed an Obama administration rule that required electronically controlled pneumatic brakes — an advanced braking technology — on trains hauling a certain amount of crude oil and certain other hazardous materials. (The Obama-era brake rule, which came in the wake of several fiery train accidents, would not have applied to the train that derailed in East Palestine, but rail experts told the investigative news outlet The Lever that the Ohio accident would have been less severe if the train had the upgraded brakes.)
The industry also successfully lobbied the Trump administration to block an Obama-era effort to require at least two crew members on most trains.
In comments submitted to the Obama administration’s Transportation Department in 2017, Norfolk Southern Corp., the company whose train derailed Feb. 3, highlighted rules that it argued “should be repealed, replaced, suspended, or modified” and wrote that “the future of railroads and railroad safety is rooted in technological innovation — if the regulatory regime does not stifle but encourages it.”
Buttigieg’s proposals include increasing the amount the Department of Transportation can fine railroads for violations, requiring at least two crew members on every train as a safety measure — the industry’s has fought crew size mandates — and reinstating a 2025 deadline for railroads to adopt safer tank cars. Most of the changes will require congressional action, and many have been bitterly opposed by the rail industry.
As for growing calls for it to reinstate the Obama-era brake rule that Trump repealed, Biden’s Transportation Department has said legislation passed in 2015 handcuffs the agency from doing so.
“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,” a Transportation Department spokesperson recently told HuffPost. That cost-benefit analysis ultimately concluded that the costs of the electronic brake rule outweighed the benefits — a finding that essentially forced Trump’s DOT to rescind the rule.
The Biden administration remains under fire for its initially low-profile response to the crisis, with Rubio insisting Buttigieg was “MIA” on the derailment as part of a back-and-forth with the transportation secretary, who on Monday night blasted Rubio for previously signing on to a letter closely mirroring industry talking points.
“He lies to media claiming my 2021 letter calling for more track inspections was a letter calling for deregulation,” Rubio wrote on Twitter. “He is an incompetent who is focused solely on his fantasies about his political future & needs to be fired.”
In a letter sent last week, Rubio and Vance zeroed in on “precision scheduled railroading,” a hyper-efficient style of rail transportation adopted by major rail companies at the instance of Wall Street. Unions and left-leaning industry critics have long said PSR, as it’s known, increases safety risks.
“Current and former rail workers, industry observers, and reform advocates have pointed to precision-scheduled railroading (PSR), by which rail companies such as Norfolk Southern increase efficiency and drive down costs by moving more freight with fewer workers, as a potential contributor to the accident,” the pair wrote to Buttigieg.
Since then, however, neither has suggested additional reforms that might challenge the industry.
But it’s clear the administration has decided to directly take on the railroads, traditionally a powerful but low-profile lobby in Washington.
“Rail companies have spent millions of dollars to oppose common-sense safety regulations,” Biden wrote Tuesday night on Twitter. “And it’s worked. This is more than a train derailment or a toxic waste spill ― it’s years of opposition to safety measures coming home to roost.”
The American Association of Railroads, which represents the country’s largest commercial railroads, suggested new policy proposals should wait until after the NTSB investigation.
“The NTSB’s independent investigators continue their work to identify the accident’s root cause and contributing factors,” AAR President Ian Johnson said. “That investigation must continue unimpeded by politics and speculation so NTSB’s findings can guide what additional measures may have prevented this accident.”
The AAR president himself is evidence of the revolving door between the rail industry and Congress: From 2009 to 2013, he was a top staffer for Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chaired the committee with oversight of the railroads.
At least one Republican close to the Ohio disaster and who has benefited from railroad industry donations has expressed shock, even outrage, that more regulations aren’t on the books to protect communities from the kind of rail disaster that has upended life in rural eastern Ohio.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) called it “absurd” that the Norfolk Southern train did not qualify as a “high-hazard flammable train” — a federal classification that triggers speed limits and other safety requirements. He has called on Congress to take action to address regulatory shortfalls.
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, which is now in charge of the cleanup.
“There is something fundamentally wrong when a train like this can come into a state and the current law, despite what they were hauling, does not require them to notify the state or local officials,” DeWine said Tuesday at a news conference.
The incident “reinforces the importance that train safety takes a higher priority than it has in the past,” DeWine added “We have to look at train safety.
A month before the derailment, Norfolk Southern gave DeWine $10,000 — the maximum amount — to help fund his inauguration activities, WSYX-TV in Columbus, Ohio, reported.