Trenton and DC Enable 21st Century Rail Robber Barons

In the two weeks since the Norfolk Southern rail disaster, which resulted in the release of a vast quantity of vinyl chloride and other highly toxic chemicals into the air and water in the borderlands of Ohio and Pennsylvania, elected officials from both parties have blasted the Norfolk Southern railroad.

They are certainly a worthy target.

Norfolk Southern, as one of just seven Class One railroads, down from close to 50 in the 1980s, reportedly increased its payout to its shareholders by some 4,500 percent while it cut its railroad workforce by a third before the Ohio catastrophe. This was achieved by slashing costs, successfully resisting regulation, and deploying more costly technology as the rail carrier made their trains longer, heavier, and much more profitable.

Yet, America’s elected leadership from both political parties don’t have clean hands either.

As the toxic cloud heads east, across North America, with the jet stream generating anxiety and possible contamination along the way, we need to look at how the rail monopoly got a stranglehold on the Congress, the executive branch and federal regulators.

As Lever journalists David Sirota, Rebecca Burns, Julia Rock, and Matthew Cunningham-Cook observed in a recent New York Times op-ed, while the “precise cause of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine is still under investigation… we know it occurred in an industry that tolerates too many preventable derailments and fights too many safety regulations.”

The Lever team’s op-Ed continues, “During the Obama and Trump administrations, the rail industry successfully lobbied against stricter rules for trains carrying flammable chemicals, and against more advanced brakes that experts and the rail industry itself have said could lessen the severity of derailments.”

But the corrosion of our politics by corporate interests extends into our state capitals like Trenton where lawmakers have been unable to move a commonsense rail safety bill for over a decade.

Consider that it was over a decade on November 30, 2012, that a southbound Consolidated Rail Corporation freight train derailed in Paulsboro, in Gloucester County, adjacent to the Delaware River.

Four rail cars fell into the Mantua Creek, after the freight train passed over a moveable rail bridge that had not been properly secured. One tank car was breached, releasing approximately 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride. Local, state, and federal emergency personnel responded on scene. A voluntary evacuation zone was established for the area, and nearby schools were ordered to immediately take shelter and seal off their buildings.

“Eyewitnesses reported a vapor cloud engulfed the scene immediately following the accident,” the National Transportation Safety Board reported. “On the day of the accident, 28 area residents sought medical attention for possible vinyl chloride exposure. The train crew and numerous emergency responders were also exposed to vinyl chloride. Equipment damage estimates were $451,000. The emergency response and remediation costs totaled about $30 million.”

The NTSB probe flagged multiple gaps and lapses in training, compliance as well as incident management that contributed to derailment and a botched response. The safety agency found there was no “comprehensive safety management program that would have identified and mitigated the risks associated with the continued operation of the bridge despite multiple bridge malfunctions of increasing frequency.”

The NTSB analysis continued. “Contributing to the consequences of the accident was the failure of the incident commander to implement established hazardous materials response protocols for worker protection and community exposure to the vinyl chloride release.”

June 6, 2013, the Quebec village of Lac-Mégantec was incinerated and dozens of its residents killed when a driverless freight train with over 70 tanker cars loaded with oil from North Dakota derailed and crashed.

Jeff Tittel was the executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey at the time. He recalls that the Paulsboro derailment and Lac-Mégantec helped to validate concerns being raised by environmental groups as the U.S. embraced fracking as rail and pipelines became a focal point.

“With New Jersey being the corridor state that it is, we have these trains coming through all the time to our refineries and chemical plants,” Tittel told InsiderNJ.  “We started twelve years ago with the Bakken oil trains coming into New Jersey to Conoco Phillips and Conoco had expanded their bays to allow for that transfer—there was the Pilgrim Pipeline which would bring Bakken crude down from Albany with the barges coming down the Hudson, so the transshipment of highly flammable chemicals and hydrocarbons was a big issue and then we had the big Paulsboro derailment.”

Working with then Senate Majority Leader Lorretta Weinberg, environmentalists supported a comprehensive rail safety bill that addressed the long list of gaps and vulnerabilities that investigators had flagged after Paulsboro.

“What came out of Paulsboro was a train safety bill that had four pieces to it: the notification of emergency services when these trains are coming in; a response plan in case there is a spill or accident with a hazmat clean-up plan and liability insurance; track inspections and more safety monitoring in terms of the trains coming; and a public notice component.”

Tittel points out that as in the East Palestine, Ohio Norfolk Southern wreck, where the local first responders on the scene were overwhelmingly volunteers, “80 percent of the fire departments in New Jersey are volunteer especially when you get into small towns in rural areas in South Jersey.”

According to the US Fire Service 2021 National Needs Assessment, volunteer firefighters in towns the size of East Palestine are in short supply with an average of 6.7 firefighters available on weekdays, compared to 11.4 on the weekend.

And as it turns out, they are not that well-equipped.

When it comes to providing a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus [SCBA] for firefighters, the US Fire Service reports, “more than half (53 percent) of all fire departments cannot equip everyone with SCBA. Departments protecting under 9,999 people have the highest rates of unmet need for SCBA equipment.”

“The whole idea is we wanted training and mitigation, hazard, and cleanup plans to all be in place in case of a spill,” Tittel said adding that the proposed package borrowed from a similar measure that was enacted in California that included a fee assessed on the hazardous cargo

“The fee on the trans-shipment would have been used to pay for all these programs—upgrades of equipment and fixing the rail lines and it had survived a federal court challenge and that was the first thing they stripped out of the bill,” Tittel said.

Gov. Christie vetoed the bill and Gov. Murphy’s press office did not respond to a query about the latest version of the legislation.

“Christie’s veto of this bill is unconscionable, reckless, and dangerous,” wrote Sierra Club’s Tittel wrote after Christie vetoed the bill. “He seems to care more about oil companies than the safety of the people of New Jersey. The bill was a compromise that everyone worked on and an important step in the right direction to deal with these dangerous bomb trains.”

“Believe me, no one is more frustrated than I am,” said Weinberg in response to a query from InsiderNJ about the status of her legislation after the East Palestine disaster. “Watching NJ transit reform being undone, lack of urgency about train, safety, and a few things left out of the sexual harassment legislation – just to name a few.”

Last year, a few months after Weinberg retired from the state senate, she wrote an op-ed for warned that “unbeknownst to most New Jerseyans, trains hauling highly volatile crude oil go rumbling through New Jersey neighborhoods at all hours of the day including densely populated Newark and Jersey City.”

Weinberg continued. “How destructive can these traveling “bombs” be? Just look at the 2013 derailment of a 72-car oil train carrying Bakken crude, the same type of oil being transported through New Jersey communities, that occurred in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. It caused a major disaster with a massive explosion and fire that killed 47 people and destroyed approximately 40 buildings.

“Given the population density of our state, the deadly hazards of Bakken crude oil shipments are of particular concern to residents of New Jersey, as thousands of these rail cars now pass through our communities every week, including heavily populated areas like Essex, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Somerset, Middlesex, and Union counties.

Weinberg reminded readers that the “the vapors from a spill, even without a fire or explosion, pose a serious health risk, including exposure to cancer-causing benzene; toluene, which has been linked to nerve damage; and hydrocarbons that have been linked to lung damage.”

While the former Senate Majority Leader expressed regret, she “couldn’t get the Bill across ac the finish line in my time, I’ve never stopped advocating for action, and I am proud to see the new representatives in my district also take up the mantle.”

Right now, it’s our volunteer first responders and the residents of our corridor communities that are most vulnerable to an event that could cast a lifelong shadow over their health as dark as the one cast over tens of thousands of 9/11 WTC responders and survivors who were told by the US EPA the downtown air was “safe to breathe.”

The record is clear, if and when there’s another East Palestine or even a Paulsboro, there needs to not only be accountability for the railroads but for the elected officials who continue to enable them.


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6 responses to “Trenton and DC Enable 21st Century Rail Robber Barons”

  1. Here is the NTSB Report on Paulsboro that everyone is ignoring:

    Unlike stationary or fixed facilities, railroads transporting hazardous materials are not required to work with communities to develop emergency plans. A fixed facility with a threshold quantity of a material designated as an extremely hazardous substance, as defined under 40 CFR 355, has significant obligations to the LEPC for both emergency planning and release notification.43 The facility emergency planning responsibilities include providing emergency planning notification to the LEPC and SERC, providing an emergency coordinator who will participate in the local emergency planning process, providing notice of any changes occurring at the facility that may be relevant to emergency planning, and, most importantly, providing any information necessary to develop and implement the emergency plan. This information typically includes the type and quantity of the hazardous materials as well as other relevant data.

    Although EPCRA defines “facility” to include railroad rolling stock, Congress provided the following exemption (U.S.C. 2009):

    Except as provided in section 11004 [Emergency Notification] of this title, this chapter does not apply to the transportation, including the storage incident to such transportation, of any substance or chemical subject to the requirements of this chapter, including the transportation and distribution of natural gas.

    Therefore, railroads are exempt from the EPCRA requirements to work with local emergency responders and the LEPCs or SERCs for emergency planning.

    The absence of any federal requirements for railroads to assist with local emergency planning leaves communities unprepared for hazardous materials releases. The issue is even more significant when the threshold quantities that trigger the EPCRA emergency planning regulations are examined. The threshold planning quantities for hazardous chemicals used at a fixed facility are often several orders of magnitude less than quantities that are routinely transported through these same communities, frequently to or from the regulated facility. For example, the fixed-facility threshold planning quantity for chlorine is 100 pounds. The train that derailed in Paulsboro was transporting four tank-car loads of chlorine (each with approximately 180,000 pounds of chlorine), more than 700,000 pounds. Although chlorine was not released in this accident, it could have been since it was in a tank car only 14 cars behind the last derailed tank car.”

    I was on scene in the evacuation zone on day one. I explain the NTSB Report findings here:

    Additional, in a related issue, NJ US Senator Lautenberg sold out the public on the federal preemption issue:

    Victory Far From Certain on Chemical Plant Risks

  2. Mr. Hennelly, great article, you are right on the money! John McCraken article of February 21, 2023,1;:45am, is a must read.

  3. Great piece Bob! You nailed-it on corporate malfesance, and the monopoly power of the half dozen freaight rail companies that dominate our nation. I know that at least one (Union Pacific) is owned and manged by a Hedge Fund. There may be more.

    If you really want get some unique insight into the size of these modern freights Just pull-up into the Roselle Park NJ Transit station. What used to be mile long freights, are now 3 to 4 mile freights! All due to less employees on these runs. You often see an engine in the middle of the freight consist, along with a pusher.

    Roselle Park ROW is governed bby Conrail Shared Asstes. Both NS and CSX utilize the right of way. Thus far, I have only heard adverse labor allegations against NS, not sure about CSX. Bob, I guarantee you, no matter what time of day you pull into Roselle Park, you will have a short wait until a long freight arrives!

    Great reporting job Bob! I am now a volunteer recruited and elected member of the New Jersey Associaition of Railroad Passngers Board of Directors.

    Best regards,

    Matt Walsh (862) 208-0604

  4. Ah yes. The stupid Democrats don’t want oil and chemicals transferred via pipelines, which are a hell of a lot safer & will transport more liquid faster and safer.
    There are now videos out there that the East Palestine train disaster could have been caused by a terrorist bomb attack. The videos show many of the cars on the train being on fire at least 20 miles before the derailment.

    Joe Biden’s first order of business when he fraudulently took over the Oval Office was to use an EO to cancel Keystone XL pipeline and several other pipelines. Why? Because President Trump issued EOs to give the pipelines first priority.

    Biden and the Democrat-Communist administration want to put this country back over 100 years with their Green RAW Deal failing and failed programs, including the electric car debacle that isn’t going anywhere in the next 10-15 years.

    So, everyone (Democrats) can continue disingenuously wringing their hands over the East Palestine Environmental Disaster, but they caused it by not shipping a lot of this dangerous stuff via pipelines.

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