A Senate committee on Wednesday approved a rail safety bill introduced after a freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, but its fate remains uncertain due to significant Republican opposition. .
The bill would increase inspections of trains carrying hazardous materials, require the use of technology to detect track defects, and sharply increase penalties on railroad companies for crashes.
The Senate Commerce Committee advanced the bill a day after Norfolk Southern renewed a promise to create a fund for residents near the site of the Ohio train wreck to cover any decline in home values. since the February derailment.
The CEO of Norfolk Southern Corp. Alan Shaw said in a letter to committee members that the railroad hopes to compensate homeowners within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of the crash if they sell their homes below. more than the estimated property before the derailment. He said the railroad expects to begin making payments within a year.
In Feb. 3, 38 railroad tracks were derailed in East Palestine, 11 of which were carrying hazardous chemicals, some of which spilled into nearby waterways. Half of the town’s 5,000 residents were evacuated as emergency responders ignited chemicals to contain the uncontrolled explosion.
Images of black smoke and stories of families forced from their homes led lawmakers to call for action to improve rail safety. The resulting bill was approved by the Senate panel on a 16-11 vote, with all but two Republicans opposing the measure.
One of the Republicans who supported the bill, JD Vance of Ohio, argued that the measure was necessary to prevent an increase in railroad accidents.
“There will be another East Palestine in this country if we don’t pass the Railway Safety Act. It’s as simple as that,” Vance said. rail that is more expensive than the safety service.”
But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the bill would give the Biden administration more power to restrict rail shipments of coal, oil and other fossil fuels “hated by the radical green movement.”
Vance and Republican Eric Schmitt of Missouri joined all committee Democrats in voting for the bill.
Cruz said the bill is unlikely to get the 60 votes it likely needs to pass on the Senate floor, or to win passage in the GOP-controlled House, unless changes are made to curb the administration’s power. to make rules on railways.
The bill has been the subject of bipartisan negotiations that resulted in changes to the original version introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads, said the negotiations improved the bill, but “challenges remain with some provisions,” including a requirement for at least two crew members on each train.
In his letter Tuesday to committee members, Norfolk Southern CEO Shaw said that while the company incurred nearly $400 million in charges for the derailment, that did not include compensation for falling property values. , long-term health care or water treatment. It also does not reflect the payments the railroad receives from insurance.
Shaw said Cruz encouraged him to write the letter, which contained more details about the homeowner’s compensation than the company had previously provided. “This commitment shows that, as Senator Cruz and others have shown, Norfolk Southern understands that this derailment is not the fault of the people of East Palestine,” the CEO said.
The federal government, the state of Ohio and residents near the crash have all filed lawsuits against Norfolk Southern.
Shares of Norfolk Southern Corp., based in Atlanta, rose a fraction of a penny in trading Wednesday.
Photo: A Norfolk Southern freight train passes through Pennsylvania in April. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
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