Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday called for several reforms to improve rail-freight safety following the train derailment in eastern Ohio earlier this month that forced thousands of residents to flee and released toxic chemicals into the environment.
According to The Washington Post, Buttigieg urged Norfolk Southern, whose train was involved in the East Palestine derailment, and other rail carriers to hasten the introduction of new tank cars and provide railway workers with paid sick leave.
He also said that his department would begin a series of track inspections on routes used to carry hazardous materials and would explore the possibility of mandating that railroads adopt new braking technology on some trains.
The secretary called on Congress to increase the fines that the Transportation Department can impose on rail companies for safety violations, which is currently capped at $225,455.
"This is a rounding error for a company that reported an astonishing record annual operating income in 2022 of $4.8 billion," the department said, referring to Norfolk Southern.
Buttigieg and the Biden administration in general have received scathing criticism for their response to the derailment, with some officials and lawmakers questioning if the federal government has provided an adequate response to the incident. Residents of the area have also questioned the safety of the area, despite what they're being told.
While Buttigieg told reporters on Monday that he would visit East Palestine "when the time is right," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan is slated to visit the derailment site for the second time on Tuesday.
"I am very interested in getting to know the residents of East Palestine, hearing from them about how they've been impacted and communicating with them about the state of the steps that we are taking," Buttigieg said.
In a statement released before Buttigieg's announcement on Monday, The Association of American Railroads said it would not comment on potential policy changes while the National Transportation Safety Board was still investigating the derailment of the 149-car Norfolk Southern train.
"Let us be clear: Railroads have no higher priority than safety," the group said. "The industry's track record demonstrates that rail is a safe, responsible way to move the hazardous materials we all depend on across the nation."
Buttigieg's reforms include urging railroads to accelerate their adoption of new tank cars, which would move the transition date up to 2025 instead of 2029 and he called on major freight railroads to join a confidential safety program that allows employees to report concerns.
Arguing that healthier employees would work more safely, Buttigieg also pressed rail companies to provide paid sick leave, revisiting the issue that was the focus of intense negotiations last year and nearly led to a national rail strike before Congress stepped in.
Standards for the class of train that carries hazardous, flammable materials will also be re-examined, according to the Transportation Department, as well as potentially requiring some trains to have a new type of electronically-controlled brakes.
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