After Pittsburgh derailment, Rep. Lee re-ups calls to pass federal train safety regulations (WESA)

Elected officials met with environmental advocates in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to discuss regulatory proposals aimed at rail companies like Norfolk Southern.

It comes on the heels of another derailment in the region: Five cars jumped the tracks in Pittsburgh’s West End on Saturday. A spokesperson for the company said it is investigating what caused it.

The train cars were empty and no injuries occurred, but with more than 1,100 derailments in the U.S. last year, Congresswoman Summer Lee said preventing a potential crisis can’t be left to chance.

“It’s very clear to us that, when left to their own devices, corporations will not do the right thing and put the safety of not just our workers, [but also] the safety of our communities, over their own profit margins,” the first-term Democrat said. “That’s why it’s important that Congress takes action right now.”

Lee co-sponsored the Decreasing Emergency Railroad Accident Instances Locally — or DERAIL — Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio of Western Pennsylvania in late February.

The bill would expand the federal classification of “high-hazard flammable trains” to those that include at least one car loaded with Class 3 flammable liquids or a Class 2 flammable gas, as well as other materials as deemed necessary by the Secretary of Transportation.

Doing so would broaden the number of trains that must comply with additional safety requirements, including traveling at lower speeds and installing new tanks and updated brakes.

The current definition of high hazard applies only to trains transporting 20 or more loaded tank cars of Class 3 flammable liquid in a continuous block, or those with at least 35 such cars throughout the entire length of the train.

“These are common-sense safety regulations that are practically non-controversial,” Lee said.

Senators introduced a similar bill with bipartisan support last month. The legislation — co-sponsored by Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman — also requires that trains have crews of at least two people.

The Railway Safety Act is expected to advance to the Senate floor in the coming weeks. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania state Senator Lindsey Williams said she plans to introduce mirroring legislation in the coming weeks.

Environmental advocates gathered at the Kingsley Association Tuesday to emphasize the need for all of the bills. Located in East Liberty, the community center is just a few hundred feet from railroad tracks along the route traversed by the train that derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3. That derailment spilled hazardous chemicals like butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride in nearby streams and rivers.

“If this derailment had occurred in a few hours’ different time frame, it could have been in the center of Pittsburgh,” said Katie Bloom, the political and legislative director for Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. That, she said, would have impacted the “heart of a community that has already been disproportionately bearing the brunt of environmental degradation and pollution for generations.”

While the 1-mile evacuation in East Palestine impacted around 2,000 residents, a similar evacuation in East Liberty would require the evacuation of more than 30,000 residents, Glenn Olcerst with the advocacy group Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh told WESA earlier this year.

Natisha Washington, an environmental organizer with 412 Justice, said much of the region’s rail infrastructure is also located in communities already plagued by increased air pollution and other environmental health hazards.

“Most of these communities are mostly Black and low-income residents that don’t have the resources to protect themselves from these harms,” she said.

Washington said the DERAIL Act and other legislation like it would be one step toward ridding these communities of harmful toxins.

“We need to make sure that our residents aren’t stuck indoors and that they’re able to be outside and live a healthy and clean life,” she said.

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