AG Urging Feds to Mandate Railroads Improve Communications over Hazardous Material Loads

Attorney General Michelle Henry leads a coalition of 13 Attorneys General in supporting a federal rule proposal that would mandate railroads make available, in electronic form, information regarding hazardous material loads to emergency responders.

The Attorneys General, in their letter, also asked for an expansion of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s proposed rule to include establishing a data depository for real-time “train consist information,” a mandatory periodic testing of their first responder information notifications, and require contingency plans when communications fail.

The proposed rule, Hazardous Materials: FAST Act Requirements for Real-Time Train Consist Information, would expand communications between railroads and emergency first responders.

The proposal comes at a critical time as the existing rules fail to ensure the timely exchange of information to first responders. The need clearly emerged following a train derailment in February in East Palestine, Ohio, which is in close proximity to the Pennsylvania border, where a train carrying hazardous materials derailed and cleanup was delayed by lack of communication.

“This will not guarantee these derailments will not occur — however, we need a structure in place to enable our brave first responders to quickly and efficiently do their jobs to minimize impact,” Attorney General Henry said. “We hope the federal administration takes our recommendations to heart as we all share a mission of keeping residents and their families safe.”

In the East Palestine incident, several railcars caught fire and others spilled hazardous waste into a nearby stream. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but were not able to identify the types of chemicals contained in the train cars for roughly 45 minutes because they were unaware of the train’s load.

The Attorneys General, in their letter, support the new proposed rule to ensure there are no coverage gaps when it comes to the transportation of hazardous materials by railroad. The new rule would require:

  • All railroads to share critical safety information with first responders in real-time, in electronic form, at all times, in addition to railroads continuing to keep a physical manifest of hazardous materials on the train.
  • A more expansive and inclusive description of the records to be kept electronically and physically. This new definition also includes the designation of a new railroad-designated emergency point of contact person, as well as identifying where the hazardous materials originated and their final destination.
  • Railroads to provide the “train consist information” to first responders along their railroad route. This will allow first responders to have all information necessary to successfully keep people safe before an emergency occurs.
  • An emergency response notification to be sent to all first responders within a 10-mile radius, that includes the “train consist information.”

The Attorneys General ask for the following expansions of the rule:

  • Require railroads to utilize a data repository for electronic “train consist information;”
  • Require railroads to coordinate with the appropriate state agencies to account for state-specific needs;
  • Require that railroads periodically test their electronic communication tools and report the results on a standardized form to PHMSA;
  • Require railroads to develop contingency plans for when electronic “train consist information” is unavailable or not accessible

Joining Pennsylvania in the comment letter are Attorneys General from: New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Wisconsin.