Now that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and the state’s congressional delegation has finally admitted they need more help from the federal government, the Biden administration is deploying more resources to East Palestine in the wake of a disastrous Norfolk Southern train derailment.
But when asked in a press call Friday about reviving an Obama-era rule mandating trains carrying hazardous and flammable materials to have updated electronic brakes instead of Civil War-era ones, Biden administration officials deferred, saying that they are hoping for Congress to lead such efforts. Citing lawsuits against the Obama-era rule, officials seemed to forget that their boss was elected to be a leader.
Officials even cited opposition from the rail industry as cause for concern in revitalizing the rule.
“We did get strong pushback from industry for that rule in 2016,” said one official. “Additionally from Congress, in pushing back on the [electronically controlled pneumatic brakes] component of the rule.”
Officials did say they are working on proposing rules to require a minimum of two-person train crews, something rail workers have asked for. The Department of Transportation is also developing a rule requiring railroads to provide real-time information on the contents of tank cars with hazardous materials in case of an incident. But the White House did not address plans for the Obama-era mandate on brakes, or specify a timeline for the two rules they do claim to be working on.
In the aftermath of a disaster that has clearly galvanized people across the country, it would be malpractice for the White House to not meet the moment. Rather than wait for Congress, Biden could declare to the public that these companies, which help over 1,000 trains derail every year, will be held accountable. Press for the rule, force members to show their cards, reap the benefits.
While the White House balks at updating outdated federal guidance, the administration does at least seem to be taking stronger action, now that the Ohio delegation has allowed them to.
The administration is sending medical personnel and toxicologists from the Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct public health testing and assessments. Residents continue to have concerns about the air, water, and soil safety in the community, and whether it is safe for them to still be there at all; government-sent epidemiologists, environmental health scientists, and more will be tasked with supporting the community.
The EPA has maintained they will hold Norfolk Southern accountable to cleaning up the site—including soil remediation of the derailment site. Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board, alongside the Department of Transportation and other agency officials, are also conducting an investigation into the derailment.
Administration officials claim that, once the investigation is complete, the government “will use all available and appropriate authorities to ensure accountability and improve rail safety.” But it is unclear how far the White House is willing to go to actually lead the charge for reform, instead of waiting to see how much congressional support may magically appear.
In his State of the Union, Biden promised, over and over again, to “finish the job.” But only dealing with this disaster after the fact is not an achievement. The deregulated rail industry helps over 1,000 trains derail every year; any action the administration takes now that is not accompanied with broader systemic change is a failure. The administration is already trying to do the job of supporting people—why not finish it?