It has been over one month since a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. As residents and the environment reel from the damage, investigations have exposed the crash as an inevitable result of compromised safety measures to boost rail company profits. These reports highlight that the disaster in East Palestine is not an isolated incident, but part of a larger pattern of unregulated rail cars causing preventable disasters. As we bear witness to this tragedy, there are things we can look to and learn from to reduce the likelihood of a similar event in the future.
The Rose Foundation works with organizations across the western region that are calling for more transparency, regulations, and protections within the rail industry to better safeguard communities and the environment from spills. Two groups working on the frontlines of this issue are Rose Foundation partners San Francisco Baykeeper (CA) and Friends of the Columbia Gorge (OR). Sejal Choksi-Chugh from Baykeeper and Kevin Gorman from Friends of the Gorge commented on the risk of train derailments, the challenges to overcome them and ways that everyday citizens can help.
What are the key problems we are up against?
Both Sejal and Kevin express that one of the biggest challenges is the political and economic supremacy of the freight rail industry. This power stems back to western expansion in the 19th century when railroads were the only way to transport goods and people across the country. Unlike the nationalized systems that developed in other countries, America’s freight railroads remained privately owned and operated. With the passage of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 which deregulated the industry, robust competition was replaced by power play between a handful of large rail corporations. Today, through lobbying and monopolistic power, the rail industry giants set their own terms, resisting federal safety regulations to keep costs low.
Frequency of Derailments and Lax Safety Measures
Train derailments are a common occurrence but major disasters are rare. In 2022, there were more than 1,000 train derailments in the US, averaging three derailments per day (Hernandez 2023). While the nation’s railways are ranked as one of the safest forms of transport, the current rate of derailments is unacceptable. For years rail companies have shirked safety regulations to keep costs low. One example is the recently killed provision that required rail cars carrying hazardous flammable materials to be equipped with Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes that stop trains more quickly than conventional air brakes. A rail company’s lobbying group pressed for the rule’s repeal saying the regulation would “impose tremendous costs without providing offsetting safety benefits” (Sirota 2023). Research says otherwise, as investigations reveal the severity of the Norfolk Southern train derailment was due in part to the train’s Civil War-era braking system.
Location of Rail Lines
Hundreds of miles of rail lines run through the Bay Area, creating a huge risk for a similar derailment event to happen here. The trains run between industrial areas like the ports of Richmond, Oakland, and San Francisco, making no major city or waterway exempt from the threat. Furthermore, some of the freight trains run on commuter rail lines, exposing residents to the polluting materials they carry.
In Oregon, trains carrying crude oil and coal run throughout the State, including through the national scenic area of Columbia River Gorge. As the only sea-level passage through the Cascades, the Columbia River Gorge is a crucial route for oil trains coming from the east. One common eastern export is highly volatile Bakken oil, often transported in oil tank cars that are prone to rupture and explode in the event of an accident. Explosive cargo and unsafe rail cars coupled with inadequate spill response plans pose an enormous risk to communities and the environment in the Gorge (gorgefriends 2016).
Coal shipped by rail also poses danger. Coal is transported in open-top cars, where each car loses about one pound of coal per mile. With 120 cars per train, each coal train releases roughly 10,200 pounds of coal as it travels 85 miles through the Gorge. The resulting toxic coal dust, in addition to diesel emissions from locomotive engines, poses a huge threat to air quality, water quality, plant and wildlife habitat, and human health (gorgefriends 2017). Despite the pronounced human and ecological impacts, the rail industry has failed to reform its practices, citing car lids as being more expensive than the loss of thousands of pounds of coal.
Are there better, safer ways to transfer oil and hazardous chemicals?
There are three ways to transfer oil and hazardous chemicals: ship, pipeline, and rail. All three options have a possibility of disaster. Despite the inherent risks of moving volatile fuels, our lifestyles remain deeply dependent on this system and its products. Given this reality, we must demand more stringent regulations to ensure cargo is transported in the safest way possible. The evolution of ship, pipeline, and rail transportation should not be driven by cost but by safety. Both Sejal and Kevin assert that our ultimate goal should be to end our dependence on fossil fuels. Advocacy against trains carrying polluting materials will add pressure to our transition to green energy. To them, the biggest priority is preventing these substances from being carried in the first place.
What measures are states and organizations taking to reduce the risk of train accidents?
According to Sejal, “California is not doing a ton to reduce the risk of train accidents. Every year there are small new regulations that pass, especially after events like in East Palestine, however the government tends to not take action that would burden the fossil fuel industry.” The same can be said in Oregon which has adopted similar measures to its southern neighbor. While residents may feel they are in a “safe” state, the lacking regulations suggest otherwise.
For this reason, the work of Rose Foundation partners like San Francisco Baykeeper and Friends of Columbia Gorge is ever more important to ensure the safety of residents and the environment. Both organizations have been instrumental in stopping the expansion of oil refining and transport and better preparing the west coast to respond to spills. Baykeeper helped orchestrate the passage of a state law that requires railroads to take more responsibility for planning the response and cleanup of oil spills. The organization also contributed to the national report Deadly Crossing: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains, where they conducted 49 inspections of rail bridges around San Francisco Bay, and found several with serious safety concerns. Baykeeper also joined with Waterkeeper organizations across the country to urge federal regulators to tighten lax regulations on crude oil shipped by rail and has supported cities around the bay in their opposition to proposed expansions of oil and coal train lines.
“The most important things that we and other groups like Columbia River Keeper and the tribes are doing is making sure the terminals are not built. If you avoid the supply then you can knock down the demand” Kevin explains. For their part, Columbia River Keeper has helped strike down multiple proposals to build oil terminals in the Pacific Northwest, including what would have been the nation’s largest oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, WA. The group also worked to pass the HB 2209 bill in the summer of 2019 which requires railroads transporting large amounts of crude oil through Oregon to development spill response plans and submit them to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for review and approval.
What can the everyday person do to help?
“Getting active locally is really important. If you are in a community where train lines come through, start asking questions at city council as to what they are carrying” says Sejal. She explains how it is a national security threat for the train cars to disclose certain materials they carry. However, residents can determine if the material is hazardous by looking up the placard code that can be found on the side of every car. She finishes saying “People have a right to know what’s in their community, and they have a right to say no.”
Similarly, Kevin urges citizens and government officials to push for and demand transparency. He also advises community members to educate themselves on how their local economy is being built: “try to examine and understand the landscape with a long-term focus in mind.” He ends the call saying “We’ve always had a joke in the Gorge as we’re dealing with these entitles, how there is God, then there’s the federal government, and then there’s the rail roads.”
“Friends of the Columbia Gorge.” Friends of the Columbia Gorge, https://gorgefriends.org/.
Hernandez, Joe. “There Are about 3 U.S. Train Derailments per Day. They Aren’t Usually Major Disasters.” NPR, NPR, 9 Mar. 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/03/09/1161921856/there-are-about-3-u-s-train-derailments-per-day-they-arent-usually-major-disaste.
Lazo, Luz. “Derailments Aren’t Uncommon, but Hazmat Spills Are Rare. Here’s What We Know.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Feb. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2023/02/17/train-derailment-statistics-safety-damages/.
“San Francisco Baykeeper.” San Francisco Baykeeper, https://baykeeper.org/.
Sirota, David. “Rail Companies Blocked Safety Rules before Ohio Derailment.” The Lever, The Lever, 16 Feb. 2023, https://www.levernews.com/rail-companies-blocked-safety-rules-before-ohio-derailment/.