Senior officials in the Biden administration have tried to pin the blame for the train derailment and subsequent chemical fallout in East Palestine, Ohio, on deregulation efforts from former President Donald Trump, but the head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called those efforts “misinformation.”
Local and state authorities previously evacuated all residents within one mile of the February 3 derailment and started a controlled burn of industrial chemicals on the vehicle to decrease the risk of an explosion, which could have sent shrapnel throughout the small town. Vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was emitted from five train cars in the form of massive plumes of black smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Deputy White House Press Secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement provided to The Hill that the disaster was caused by Republican lawmakers and the Trump administration. He claimed that they “owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists” and contended that Republican members of Congress “laid the groundwork for the Trump administration to tear up requirements for more effective train brakes.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who visited the Ohio community impacted by the train derailment one day after the former commander-in-chief, likewise said the Biden administration has been “constrained” on rail safety as a result of a “braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015.”
Both officials appear to have been referencing a rule that would have required some trains to upgrade their braking systems to electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, also known as ECP brakes. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, who leads the independent federal agency charged with investigating the train disaster, exhorted all who claim that the braking rule would have prevented the derailment to “stop spreading misinformation.”
Homendy said on social media that the rule only would have applied to “high hazard flammable trains,” while the vehicle which derailed in East Palestine was classified as a “mixed freight train” with too few hazardous cars to meet the threshold for the regulation. She added that the train would not have had ECP brakes “even if the rule had gone into effect.”
The ECP braking rule would’ve applied ONLY to HIGH HAZARD FLAMMABLE TRAINS. The train that derailed in East Palestine was a MIXED FREIGHT TRAIN containing only 3 placarded Class 3 flammable liquids cars. pic.twitter.com/ReAFDSdsn7
— Jennifer Homendy (@JenniferHomendy) February 17, 2023
Members of the Biden administration themselves have likewise hesitated to implement braking rules. Federal officials said the new standards would produce costs that significantly outweigh any accrued benefits, according to a report from The Washington Post.
Even beyond the issue of establishing new braking system requirements, the number of train derailments has remained relatively unchanged from approximately 1,300 annual incidents over the past decade and even declined to 1,100 annual incidents in 2020 and 2021, two and three years after the braking regulations were nixed, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
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Democratic officials shift culpability over the train derailment to Republicans as criticism mounts against the Biden administration for a perceived lack of attention to the crisis. Buttigieg did not publicly acknowledge the incident until February 13, more than one week after the derailment occurred, and visited the site on February 23. President Joe Biden himself has not yet visited East Palestine but took a clandestine trip to Ukraine on Monday to express solidarity with the nation’s war effort against Russia.