In an attempt to score political points on Wednesday, former President Donald Trump jetted to Ohio to visit the site of a disastrous Norfolk Southern train derailment that experts say was likely worsened — or caused — by his administration’s sweeping safety deregulation.
During his visit, Trump touted his donation of “Trump water” to the residents of East Palestine, as well as his donation of “much lesser quality water” that his team was able to come by.
When a reporter asked about his administration’s overturn of an Obama-era rule specifically aimed at making trains carrying hazardous materials safer, which he carried out with the backing of Republicans early in his presidency, Trump lied, claiming that his administration “had nothing to do with it.”
Trump’s lie is especially cynical as he and the far right attempt to score points off the backs of residents who have spent the three weeks since the crash in limbo, wondering who they can trust about their health and the health of their families.
Experts say that Trump’s deregulation of the rail industry — deregulation that has thus far been upheld by the Biden administration — has at least worsened the disaster.
In 2017, the Trump administration, at the behest of rail lobbyists, rescinded a rule that would have required rail cars with hazardous flammable materials to install new brake technology, known as Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes, that would have helped trains stop more quickly. Norfolk Southern had pressured the administration to repeal the rule, saying it would be too expensive to implement.
“Would ECP brakes have reduced the severity of this accident? Yes,” former senior Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) official Steven Ditmeyer told The Lever. “The railroads will test new features. But once they are told they have to do it … they don’t want to spend the money.”
The Biden administration has condemned Trump for his visit, saying, “Congressional Republicans and former Trump administration officials owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled Obama-Biden rail safety protections.”
But the Biden administration has also faced its fair share of criticism for its response to the disaster. It took nearly three weeks for Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to visit East Palestine to speak with residents about the emergency — a move he only made after falsely suggesting that he has little power to make rail safety regulations stronger. After facing blistering scrutiny, his agency finally released a new set of regulations on rail safety this week, but those regulations will likely fall short, Railroad Workers United said.
Railroad Workers United, which advocates for public ownership of the rail system, has been vocal about the role of rail companies — and the failure of lawmakers to rein them in — in the crash. They say that rail owners, in their endless quest to inflate profits at the expense of workers and public safety, have continually made decisions, like their usage of the cost-cutting model “precision scheduled railroading,” that make disasters like the one in East Palestine nearly inevitable.
“Prior to the stock buyback era, railroads agreed that ECP brakes were a good thing,” rail worker and Railroad Workers United organizer Ron Kaminkow told The Lever earlier this month. “The railroads hadn’t yet come to the realization that they could do whatever they wanted. ECP brakes were on the drawing board, then off.”
Just months ago, Norfolk Southern ignored a mechanical problem similar to the one that documents say caused the East Palestine disaster, ProPublica reported this week. In October, a train derailed due to a faulty wheel bearing on an engine and spilled thousands of gallons of paraffin wax elsewhere in Ohio.
It appears that the company failed to take action to prevent such accidents from happening again, and dodged questions about whether or not the train crew was alerted of the problem before the train derailed.
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