Buttigieg warns rail companies to expect increased fines and regulations
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called on the rail industry to immediately improve safety standards or face stiff penalties after a train derailment in Ohio forced mass evacuations and a toxic chemical spill and burn off.
Mr Buttigieg unveiled a package of reforms on Tuesday that would increase fines for “egregious violations”, force rail companies to provide sick pay and inform local officials when they are transporting hazardous materials through their state.
The current maximum fine a rail company could face was $225,455, which he described as a “rounding error” for a company like Norfolk Southern who had an annual operating income of $4.8bn in 2022.
He further called on railroad companies to set up confidential hotlines where staff could report safety concerns, after previous instances of Norfolk Southern allegedly trying to silence whistleblowers.
“Profit and expediency must never outweigh the safety of the American people,” Mr Buttigieg said in a press release.
“We at (the Department of Transportation) are doing everything in our power to improve rail safety, and we insist that the rail industry do the same — while inviting Congress to work with us to raise the bar.”
Mr Buttigieg wrote to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Sunday accusing him of putting profit over safety prior to the 3 February derailment of a train carrying toxic materials in East Palestine.
Mr Buttigieg warned the executive that the federal government would be watching closely to ensure that the railroad company kept its promise of cleaning up the town.
On 3 February, a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals and suffered a catastrophic derailment on the outskirts of East Palestine.
State officials opted to burn the chemicals off, causing a huge explosion and sending plumes of toxic black smoke hundreds of feet into the air.
Thousands of residents were evacuated, before being given the all clear to return several days later.
At a public meeting held in East Palestine last week, residents said they didn’t trust the assurances that the water and air were safe.
Local officials have posted clips to social media showing them drinking the tap water in an effort to reassure the town.
On Monday, Norfolk Southern said in a release it had committed $5.6m to helping East Palestine residents.
A spokesperson said 15,000 pounds of contaminated dirt and 1.1 million gallons of dirty water had been removed from the site of the derailment.
EPA administrator Michael Regan was returning to East Palestine on Tuesday to oversee the clean up operation, Mr Buttigieg said.
On Monday, Mr Buttigieg said he would travel to East Palestine “when the time was right”.