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Local fire departments back bill providing funding for response to hazardous train derailments

The cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, continues on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
The cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, as seen on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

Local fire departments are supporting a bill that would provide financial support for first responders dealing with hazardous train derailments.

Sen. Sherrod Brown introduced the Assistance for Local Heroes During Train Crises Act earlier this year in response to the train derailment and chemical release in East Palestine. Under the bill, companies that ship and carry hazardous materials would pay into a fund that would reimburse a community’s emergency response to any accidents. The money could be used to replace equipment, pay employees overtime and address other urgent costs. The bill is also sponsored by Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman and Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith.

"At the base level, it's only fair that the railroad companies have to bear part of the cost or even most of the cost of these cleanups," Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association President Colin Altman said.

This would be welcome support, especially for smaller, rural fire departments, Altman said.

“A lot of time these happen in small areas where there’s not a large fire department that may be better prepared to handle these things," Altman said. In rural East Palestine, the fire chief is the only full time employee of the fire department.

Yet, train derailments can impact communities of all sizes, Altman said.

“It’s definitely a difficult even for the largest fire department, because rail lines go right through the centers of cities as well," Altman said. "But for a smaller department, a volunteer or a combination fire department, trying to get those resources lined up immediately is going to be difficult.”

This has been a longstanding issue, only recently brought to light by East Palestine, Altman said.

"This isn't just I think an issue that's limited to East Palestine," Altman said. "It's something you can probably look at any significant train derailment involving hazardous materials, and the same issues have popped up."

Unlike the Railway Safety Act, this piece of legislation does not have bipartisan support.

“We’re searching for Republican cosponsors," Brown said, adding that he's optimistic he can build a bipartisan coalition to support the bill. However, the House version does have bipartisan support. The bill was introduced by Pennsylvania Democrat Rep. Chris Deluzio, whose district includes Beaver County, parts of which were impacted by the East Palestine derailment, as well as eastern Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.

Railroad companies have been skirting accountability for these accidents for decades, Brown said.

"That's the age old trick for these powerful interest groups, the banks, the drug companies, the oil companies, the railroads, they say, 'Let's study this, let's not hurry on this,'" Brown said. "And then public attention sort of evaporates over time, and they get away with doing nothing."

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is holding a hearingon the Railway Safety Act Wednesday.

Updated: May 11, 2023 at 3:51 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include information about a version of the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.