Guest Commentary: Crash points out the folly of rail transport of hazardous materials


Tracy Carluccio is the deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

America’s freight train transportation has gone off the rails.

If you live or work anywhere near a railway, you are enmeshed in a network capable of terrorizing communities and inflicting massive harm. In the event of a derailment and the release of toxic cargo, the pollution that results can not only cause immediate damaging health effects but also can degrade air and water quality for years; if flammable or explosive, the effects can be catastrophic. Delaware, the country’s second smallest state, has eight different freight carriers, with tracks crisscrossing its 1,982 square miles of land.

Witness the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, that had disastrous consequences for Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Residents were evacuated and a raging fire that could not be extinguished burned for nearly a week. Billowing smoke engulfed the sky. Thirty-eight cars derailed, including 11 carrying hazardous substances, and several of them broke open. Another 12 were damaged by fire. The train was 150 cars and 1.7 miles long.

A decision by Norfolk Southern to conduct a “controlled burn” of vinyl chloride released more pollutants; new dangerous chemicals may have been formed as a result of the fires. People who live there have experienced harmful health effects, are traumatized and fear their exposure to the toxins may result in illness and disease now and down the road. Tens of thousands of fish and aquatic animals died, and the devastating environmental impacts are still being assessed.

Shockingly, on March 4, another Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in Springfield, Ohio, sending 28 rail cars tumbling off the tracks, next to people’s homes. The train had 212 cars and was over 2.5 miles long. Dodging a bullet, reportedly, there was no hazardous cargo or release and no fire.

Train derailments are more common than people know, and are increasing. In 2022, the Federal Railroad Administration reported 818 derailments; 447 train cars carrying hazardous materials were either damaged or derailed. It’s reported that, over the past 10 years, 5,462 hazmat cars have been damaged or derailed, and there were 135 instances of cars releasing hazardous substances.

Why? A perfect storm of deficiencies that include a lack of adequate safety regulations, aging rail infrastructure and rail cars, and the continued use of air brakes designed in the 1860s.

Highly efficient pneumatic braking systems are available and were proposed to be installed during the Obama administration, along with other safety upgrades, but they were watered down and then further cut under the Trump administration. Additionally, Class 1 railroads have cut their workforce 30% between 2015-21, following rail companies’ adoption of Precision Scheduled Railroading, which requires running longer, heavier trains, reduces the length of time budgeted for workers to perform safety checks and resulted in steep job cuts.

Lack of regulations that protect workers, such as paid sick leave, erode job performance and don’t mandate sufficient staff to carry out necessary work. Compounding it all, rail companies are known to make decisions that do not prioritize the public but benefit their bottom lines, as expressed by Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro in a letter to Norfolk Southern accusing the company of imposing unilateral, bad decisions, making the East Palestine disaster even more damaging.

We obviously need a complete overhaul of how the railways are run and a reordering of priorities that place public safety and environmental protection first. But, in the meantime, it is essential we don’t add more hazardous materials to the rails, especially in substandard rail cars. Two train derailments in 30 days in Ohio, plus 447 rail cars carrying hazardous materials either derailed or damaged last year, is unacceptable by all reasonable standards. Enough is enough.

At this moment, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is proposing to suspend the Trump-era regulation that lifted the long-standing safety ban on transporting liquefied natural gas by rail car.

The state of Delaware’s Kathleen Jennings joined with 14 other attorneys general to contest the Trump-era rule allowing liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail. No LNG currently travels by rail car, since no company has yet built the cars required. However, if the rule is not pulled back, it will be “build it and they will come,” as the industry rushes to cash in on the liquefied natural gas export frenzy spurred by the war in Ukraine.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s proposed suspension is based on its stated concerns for community and environmental risks (the “suspension rule”). Liquefied natural gas, or liquid methane, is a hazardous, flammable and explosive material, and its transport in rail cars has not been proven safe.

Of great importance for Delaware, PHMSA is also deliberating whether to authorize LNG rail transport under a special permit that would carry it from north-central Pennsylvania over 200 miles to a proposed LNG export terminal at Gibbstown, New Jersey, about 6 miles north of the Delaware state line. The gas would be loaded into enormous ships on the Delaware River and exported overseas down the river and through the Delaware Bay, passing by Wilmington and Delaware bayside and coastal communities. Dubbed by some as “bomb ships,” each of the marine vessels is said to carry the explosive energy equal to 69 Hiroshima atomic bombs.

This is one reason the city of Wilmington adopted a resolution opposing the project in 2020. In fact, Delaware’s Administrative Code prohibits the development of liquefied natural gas terminals in the coastal zone in Delaware under current law.

A petition is circulating calling upon the U.S. Department of Transportation to prevent the transport of liquefied natural gas by rail nationally by immediately adopting the suspension rule and reinstating the permanent ban, and to deny the application for the Gibbstown special permit to transport the gas by rail. It makes absolutely no sense to add more highly dangerous materials to our nation’s dysfunctional freight rail system, particularly liquefied natural gas, which is the most powerfully explosive of all hazardous cargo.

Sign the petition at to protect our communities.

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