by Bob McEwen
The ongoing health and environmental disaster unfolding in East Palestine, OH is another example of abdicated leadership by the Biden Administration on critical issues facing America’s railways. Fumbled labor negotiations precipitating the near miss of a nationwide rail strike that would have brought the transport of 19.3 billion tons of annual goods to a standstill, on top of ongoing supply chain snarls which contribute to the freight rates spiking as much as 37% year over year are two such examples. All Americans are suffering the consequences of their failing choices. Leadership is desperately needed.
The clear inability of the Biden Administration to respond effectively to the train derailment in East Palestine has resulted in prolonged exposure of the residents to a variety of harmful substances. According to specialists the release of these ingredients are cause for serious health concern: “Vinyl chloride is cancerous. The hydrogen chloride is so bad that when inhaled, it mixes with the water in your lungs and you could have acid burns in your lungs.” Now, with residents complaining of a host of medical ailments from headaches to rashes to asthma, concerns are growing that there will be further adverse health effects following continued exposure.
But despite the undisputable fact that this is nothing less than a major disaster, the Biden Administration’s FEMA, DOT, HHS offices have all been virtually invisible on site. At a recent town hall with residents, not one senior representative from the federal government was in attendance and it took almost three weeks for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to travel to East Palestine in Ohio’s 6th Congressional district. The continued insistence that the town’s air is safe to breath and water is safe to drink, despite mounds of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, has only served to broaden the distrust between the government in Washington and the affected citizens on the ground.
Unfortunately, it appears that Mr. Biden has learned nothing from this experience. In fact, his administration is expected to soon take steps that could increase the risk of another incident like the one in East Palestine. Specifically, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) is reviewing a proposed acquisition of Kansas City Southern railway by Canadian Pacific (CP), a foreign owned railway. If approved even longer trains with similarly hazardous payloads could be expected more frequently through some of the largest population centers in the Midwest. Unlike the White House’s reference to rail car brake regulations that had nothing to do with the East Palestine incident, this decision truly would impact taxpayers.
While rail transport of contaminants is relatively safe, its track record struggles when compared to pipelines such as the ones the Administration is aggressively blocking. There are over 1,000 train derailments every year. Sending more such cargo through the major cities of Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Houston is a risk that should be given careful consideration. Over the past few months, the Surface Transportation Board has collected thousands of comments from individuals concerned over the merger.
Yet instead of taking these warnings from anxious citizens seriously, the Surface Transportation Board glossed over them in their final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) regarding the merger that they released in late January. Despite the fact that Americans have unfortunately now seen firsthand the significantly damaging environmental impact that a train derailment can have, the STB concluded that train noise would be the primary potential negative environmental impact of the merger.
In light of recent revelations, it is hard to understand why the Biden Administration would continue to move forward with allowing such a merger, unless politics is a key factor. While the President claims to care about “forgotten” Americans, his Administration does not treat all underserved communities the same. Rust belt towns which have firmly turned away from the Democrat party in recent years or the farmers and rural shippers in red states that would be most affected by the loss of competition if this merger were to be approved do not elicit the same protections that other more favored populations receive. The contradiction of the President claiming to be concerned about the environment but then avoiding an honest examination of the full environmental risks of this proposed merger should not be lost in this discussion.
It is time for Mr. Biden and his Administration to show some leadership on the issues facing American railways. That starts with getting its act together in East Palestine and hitting the pause button on rail mergers with foreign owned companies or other efforts to further expand hazmat shipments in communities across the country. The time has come for a robust renewed discussion about modes of transportation, our nation’s supply lines and the benefits and risks to all the American people.
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Bob McEwen represented the 6th District of Ohio for six terms in the Congress of the United States.
Photo “Bob McEwen” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.