In February, a train derailment exposed the town of East Palestine, Ohio, to toxic vinyl chloride. Since then, the company that made the chemicals has spent millions to stop railway legislation that could help prevent another disaster.

A video screenshot released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board shows the site of a derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio. (NTSB / Handout via Xinhua)

The company that manufactured the toxic chemicals that were released and incinerated in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment this winter gave $2 million to the primary Senate GOP super PAC as bipartisan rail safety legislation stalled in Congress.

The manufacturer, Occidental Petroleum, has been lobbying on rail and tank car safety, and its lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council — which also donated $250,000 to the main House GOP super PAC — had pushed for changes weakening the bill in committee.

The railroad legislation, introduced in the immediate aftermath of the East Palestine disaster, was once seen as the first real shot at imposing new regulations on the railroad industry in years. Now, on the six-month anniversary of the toxic accident, even what’s left of the watered-down bill doesn’t appear to have the Republican votes necessary to pass in the Senate.

On May 10, Sen. J. D. Vance (R-OH) and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) proposed comprehensive amendments to the rail safety legislation, which Vance had originally coauthored. One of the amendments delayed by three years the requirement that shippers replace old tank cars that are vulnerable to punctures with upgraded cars, as we previously reported. Federal regulators had recommended the 2025 deadline included in the original bill, but chemical and rail-supply industry lobbyists pushed for a delay.

Occidental donated $2 million in June to the Senate Leadership Fund, the main super PAC for Senate Republicans, three weeks after the railroad bill was weakened in committee.

The Senate Leadership Fund spent $32 million to help elect Vance last fall. During the 2022 election cycle, Occidental funneled $5.5 million to the committee, making it the super PAC’s largest corporate donor.

A lobbying group for Occidental and other oil and chemical producers, which see nearly one million tons of their products transported across the country by trains each year, pushed back against the deadline for new, safer tank cars because it said the cost of doing so “would pose significant burdens” for manufacturers, shippers, and consumers.

Last month, Politico reported that the rail safety bill, authored by Vance and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), likely will not secure the Republican support it needs to reach sixty votes and pass the Senate. The Senate’s second-highest-ranking Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, is a former rail industry lobbyist who has been fighting the legislation.

“This Policy Change Would Pose Significant Burdens”

Vance and Brown introduced the Railway Safety Act one month after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, leaving the small town temporarily enveloped in toxic chemicals that were released and burned off the train.

Despite the fact that the train was carrying flammable and carcinogenic vinyl chloride and other hazardous materials, it was not subject to the more stringent regulations that cover “high-hazard flammable trains,” following rail and chemical industry lobbying on 2015 safety rules.

The original Railway Safety Act directed the transportation secretary to expand the definition of high-hazard flammable trains and issue regulations for wayside defect detectors, devices placed along tracks that catch technical problems. It also required a minimum of two crew members on most freight trains and increased the maximum fines that the Department of Transportation can impose for safety violations, among other provisions.

In May, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee passed the Vance-Cantwell amendment, which — in addition to delaying the tank car upgrade from the original bill — stripped requirements that the Department of Transportation issue rules for hazmat trains to “reduce or eliminate blocked crossings” and rules limiting train length and weight, weakened the requirement for wayside defect detectors, and more.

The American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry lobbying group of which Occidental is a member, pushed for the changes. In June, the American Chemistry Council donated $250,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC that backs GOP House candidates.

Another industry group, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, which counts an Occidental executive on its board of directors, had recommended delaying the tank car upgrade deadline.

“Expediting the current phase out of the tank car fleet, as the Railway Safety Act of 2023 proposes, would not have prevented the East Palestine derailment,” wrote American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers vice president Rob Benedict in a March 29 letter to the Senate Transportation Committee. “This policy change would pose significant burdens on shippers and consumers and threaten refiners, petrochemical manufacturers, and ultimately consumers.”

The policy change would have sped up the adoption of newer, safer tank cars, called DOT-117s. In March, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration called on “tank car owners and shippers of flammable liquids to voluntarily upgrade their tank car fleets to the newest, and safest, available tank car design authorized for flammable liquid service — the DOT-117 specification tank car.”

None of the five potentially compromised tank cars in the East Palestine derailment that were part of the controlled chemical release met the DOT-117 classification.

Occidental has spent $5.9 million on lobbying so far this year, including on rail safety and tank car safety, according to federal records we reviewed.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns more than 25 percent of Occidental, making it the firm’s largest shareholder. Berkshire Hathaway also wholly owns the nation’s largest railroad, BNSF Railway. BNSF has been lobbying on the Railway Safety Act.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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