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Railroad group defends industry safety practices as Pa. opens health center near East Palestine

  • Oliver Morrison/WESA
A train runs along the track in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 16, 2023.

 Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

A train runs along the track in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 16, 2023.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro announced on Monday that the state Department of Health is opening a health resource center in Darlington Township, the area of Pennsylvania closest to the toxic train derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio.

The departments of Environmental Protection and Agriculture will also be on hand to help sign up residents for water testing and provide guidance on food and animal safety. The center, which opens on Tuesday, will be located in the Darlington Township Building and will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the next two weeks.

“Pennsylvanians who are concerned about the impacts of the derailment on their health will have an additional resource to turn to, where they can talk to public health experts right in their own community from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Department of Human Services, to receive treatment should they need it,” Shapiro said in a statement. The Department of Health is also working with federal agencies to go door-to-door to ask residents about any symptoms they are having that may be related to chemical exposures, according to the release.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Carl Belke, the president of the Keystone State Rail Association, defended the safety practices of railroads in Pennsylvania by telling state lawmakers that there have been only four major train derailments with hazardous materials in the past decade. Belke said a major train derailment is defined by federal law as one that exceeds a certain cost threshold, which he said was about $25,000. Although he said he couldn’t comment on the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Belke defended the railroad industry’s safety practices before a hearing of the state Senate Transportation Committee.

Belke’s defense of Pennsylvania’s rail safety record comes at a time when he and others testifying at the hearing said that the amount of hazardous materials being transported on Pennsylvania railroads has been increasing, and has risen in conjunction with the regional fracking boom during the past decade. But the number of serious derailments amounts to only a fraction of a percent of all hazardous materials trains, Belke said.

Belke said the industry’s improved safety record was due to improvements in technology. For example, he said there are several kinds of electronic monitors that can detect problems in advance, including “wayside detectors” that identify when a wheel has overheated. According to the initial National Transportation Safety Board report, a wayside detector alerted the train operators on the Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine right before its derailment on Feb. 3.

But Republican state Sen. Camera Bartolotta asked how it was possible that the wayside detectors could have missed the overheating wheel on Norfolk Southern’s train for so long. Video footage showed the wheel experiencing problems around 20 miles before it derailed. “To go 20 miles with what appears to have been a fire,” she said. “Do we know what happened?”

For his part, Belke said the detectors were typically inspected twice a year, but he declined to answer the specific question, saying that it was up to federal regulators to look into what happened with the detectors involved in this and other accidents.

Belke said he didn’t think one of the safety measures most widely discussed in the derailment’s aftermath — ECP electronic braking — would have helped. A federal Department of Transportation rule requiring the adoption of electronic breaks was implemented during the Obama administration, but it was then rescinded during the Trump administration. Belke said electronic breaks were unnecessary because the rail industry now adds additional engines to the middle and back of long, Class I trains.

“The idea of ECP was we want them all to come on right now, not 10 seconds later. That’s what distributed power does,” he said. “Now you’ve broken the train down into 30-car blocks instead of one block, and it’s essentially giving you the same result as each ECP braking.”

Belke also said that the train in East Palestine wouldn’t have had to use electronic breaks because the train didn’t meet the federal definition of a hazardous materials train, where 20 cars in a row or 35 cars overall, contain hazardous materials.

The average rail car is about 20 years old, Belke said, but has a useful life of between 40 and 50 years. The industry is in the middle of transitioning to safer hazardous materials tankers, but he said that a shortage of steel across the country has slowed down this transition. He said the industry has been trying to add additional steel “jackets” to the outsides of these cars but that the industry has had a difficult time getting castings for new couplings. “In any incident we don’t want them to breach,” he said.

Belke said the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s railroad infrastructure a much better safety grade than either the nation’s highways or airline infrastructure. And he said this has continued to improve over time. “Compared to when I started 50 years ago and today there’s no comparison,” he said.

Several state regulators said that they were relatively limited in what they could do at the state level to make railroad travel safer. Rodney Bender, the railroad safety manager for Pennsylvania’s Public Utilities Commission, told state lawmakers that his inspectors find and report any safety violations to the National Railroad Administration, and it is the federal regulator’s job to issue any fines or violations.

“We regulate safety, but I don’t think we can fine the railroads,” Bender said.

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