The Washington Post

Feds urge railroads to review sharing of hazardous shipment informatio­n


The federal hazardous materials safety agency called on railroads Friday to review how they share informatio­n about dangerous shipments with local communitie­s, saying it was concerned that some crews responding to the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, might not have had access to a key data sharing app.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administra­tion laid out the steps it wants railroads to take in a formal safety advisory, the third that federal transporta­tion agencies have issued this week. The advisories do not have the force of law, but are part of an effort by the government to improve safety in response to the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment and subsequent chemical spill.

Since 2014, railroads have shared informatio­n with emergency responders through an app called Askrail. It is designed to quickly provide informatio­n about hazardous shipments so fire department­s and other agencies can respond safely. The advisory calls on railroads to review access to the app to ensure adequate availabili­ty, publicize the app’s existence and provide training on how to use it.

The advisory says that accurate and timely access to informatio­n about what is on a train “is crucial to understand­ing hazards present in a derailment and other incidents involving a train transporti­ng hazmat.”

Norfolk Southern referred questions to the Associatio­n of American Railroads, a trade group, which said data from the Askrail app indicates it was accessed in connection with the Ohio derailment.

“Railroads are continuall­y in conversati­on with the first responder and emergency response community to enhance the AskRail App and ensure communitie­s have the informatio­n they need to plan and respond to a rail incident,” said Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoma­n for the group.

State and local officials have raised concerns about the amount of informatio­n rail companies must provide about trains passing through their communitie­s, and there have been questions about how quickly Norfolk Southern gave informatio­n about the hazardous chemicals on the derailed train to officials and the public.

Pennsylvan­ia Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) has said Norfolk Southern did not immediatel­y inform authoritie­s about the number of cars containing dangerous chemicals, contributi­ng to confusion about the risks involved in a decision to vent and burn some of the chemicals on the train. The derailment occurred near the Ohio-pennsylvan­ia border, and it put communitie­s in Shapiro’s state at risk.

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine (R), has also said there was too little transparen­cy.

The National Transporta­tion Safety Board has said that part of its investigat­ion into the derailment will include what informatio­n was shared about the train before the incident and afterward.

Legislatio­n proposed by a bipartisan group of senators this week would require railroads to provide more advance informatio­n about hazardous materials to local officials.

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said that people deserve to have at least some of access to details about dangerous shipments.

“They need to know, absolutely deserve to know, whether they live or work near a hazmat route,” Homendy said at a news conference last week.

The new federal safety advisory urges railroads to review their existing emergency response plans. It calls on them to share the plans with local officials, including informatio­n on what sorts of chemicals are being shipped through their communitie­s, and to take part in drills.

“Plans are most effective when they are shared with communitie­s and exercised,” the advisory says.

The advisory follows another Thursday that called on tank car owners to examine their fleets for models fitted with aluminum covers protecting pressure relief valves and consider upgrading to steel. The NTSB has found that aluminum covers on some of the cars involved in the Ohio derailment melted, potentiall­y compromisi­ng the valves.

The Federal Railroad Administra­tion also issued an advisory asking railroads to review their use of detectors designed to provide train crews with warnings about overheatin­g bearings, which can cause derailment­s. The crew on the derailed train did receive a warning but it came to late for them to stop the train safely, according to the NTSB.

On Friday, the railroad associatio­n circulated new federal data showing long term gains in safety.

“This data makes clear that our employees’ strong safety culture paired with the sustained, discipline­d investment­s in maintenanc­e and technologi­es that target the primary causes of accidents deliver meaningful safety results,” Ian Jefferies, chief executive for the Associatio­n of American Railroads, said in a statement.

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