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.