Biden administration considering penalties for Ohio rail disaster

The Biden administration said Friday it was considering enacting civil penalties for rail operator Norfolk Southern following a train disaster in Ohio that led to an environmental crisis. 

Senior administration officials told Politico that the White House was considering a “legally binding order to ensure the company pays for cleanup costs” for the wreckage of a freight train in East Palestine, Ohio. The train derailed on Feb. 3, putting the small town at risk of toxic gases and other environmental problems due to the burning of hazardous materials being transported. 

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The town was evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the derailment, however, a risk may still remain to those in the area. In particular, one of the materials involved, vinyl chloride, “is a flammable gas and if involved in a fire, it could break down into hydrogen chloride, phosgene, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide vapors when burned,” the Environmental Protection Agency said. 

Resident Amanda Greathouse told CNN that she had “a rash on my skin and my arm, and my eyes were burning for a few days after that.”

Norfolk Southern has said that it is “paying for all cleanup costs in East Palestine, a commitment that was made from the very start.” According to Politico, White House officials told the rail operator that if they did not make good on this promise, the government would clean up the site itself and charge Norfolk Southern three times the cost. 

Politico noted that officials also defended “the furor of criticism of what some see as a delayed response by the administration,” highlighting that an evacuation order was in place from the beginning of the disaster. They additionally noted that in 2018, a series of rules requiring electronically controlled brakes to be installed on trains carrying hazardous material was rolled back by the Trump administration.

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