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Ohio Senate panel releases rail safety report commissioned after East Palestine toxic train derailment

The committee made several recommendations, including encouraging Congress to pass the Railway Safety Act of 2023.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — More than seven months after Norfolk Southern's toxic train derailment in East Palestine, the Ohio Senate's Select Committee on Rail Safety unanimously approved and issued its final report on the incident.

The 10-member committee, including Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), were tasked with learning more about the February 3 crash in Columbiana County. Specifically, they sought to find out where the recovery stands, how the Ohio General Assembly can help the people of East Palestine recover, and how to best prevent and respond to future accidents.

"What we're trying to do is look at what happened and do everything that we can to prevent an incident like this from happening again," said Antonio, who also served as the committee's ranking member.

The committee held five meetings, plus made a site visit to East Palestine. The members heard testimony from a total of 13 people, including Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, and leaders from several other state agencies. 

The result of the months-long investigation were the following recommendations:

1. Encourage the passage of the Railway Safety Act of 2023, S.576 (S. Brown, J.D. Vance) in Congress and urge improved coordination between state and federal governments to better convey their respective oversight and responsibilities of trains and rail safety to the general public.

2. Establish a clear and concise chain of command when emergencies occur. In East Palestine, state and local officials worked together to create an effective chain of command led by the local fire chief.

3. Provide additional resources for training for volunteer fire and EMS personnel.

4. Consider emerging technology that can quickly identify rail cars and the materials in them to assess how to manage the accident and limit the damage that occurs due to a derailment.

5. Request continued long-term testing of soil and water at and near the derailment in East Palestine for a period of at least 20 years.

6. Encourage improved communication between rail companies and local EMAs to better equip local communities with necessary information to improve their response to potential emergencies, such as what kind of materials pass through their jurisdiction, who operates the rail lines, and emergency contact information for each rail line operator.

7. Request funding a report on agriculture in the East Palestine region in the next operating budget.

8. Encourage research on alternative resources that may be utilized by first responders to put out hazardous material fires such as soil and sand.

9. Advocated for provisions enacted in H.B. 23 (FY24/FY25 Transportation Budget): requiring two person crews (O.R.C. 4999.99), requiring the use and installation of more wayside detectors by train companies (O.R.C. 4955.50 and 4955.51), and completion of a study by the PUCO regarding the effectiveness of wayside detectors (O.R.C. 749.20).

Advocated for provisions enacted in H.B. 33 (FY24/25 Main Operating Budget): providing $100M for Rail Safety Crossing Match (O.R.C. 411.20 and O.R.C. 513.10).

"We have to make sure first responders have a better idea of what is on a train and that they can quickly access that information," Antonio added. "That's part of our recommendations.

You can read the entire report from the Ohio Senate Select Committee on Rail Safety below:

The next step for safer railroads would be the passage of the Railway Safety Act of 2023, co-sponsored by Ohio's U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and JD Vance. The bill requires a minimum of two-person crews on board certain freight train. It also requires rail companies to inform local communities about the hazardous materials on board trains, plus mandating that companies comply with train length and and weight specifications.

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