The presidents of a dozen railroad unions told federal officials on Wednesday that workers at the site of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment that spilled toxic chemicals have fallen ill.
Union leaders met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Federal Railroad Administration head Amit Bose in Washington, D.C., the same day Ohio electeds introduced bipartisan legislation to enhance train safety.
Among the items discussed were the contents of a letter sent to East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the federal agencies by the general chairman of the American Rail System Federation of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The letter, obtained by CNBC, alleged that Norfolk Southern rail employees working the clean-up site are reporting “migraines and nausea” and have not received enough respirators, eye protection or protective clothing.
Union representatives have also been flagging what they say is a lack of concern for safety overall. Norfolk Southern has denied those claims, telling CNBC that company officials were “on-scene immediately after the derailment” and coordinating a response.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023, introduced by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and four others, would enhance safety protocols to address what went wrong in the Feb. 3 derailment of 32 cars that spilled hazardous chemicals that had to be burned off to prevent an explosion. An overheated wheel bearing was found to be the cause.
Half the 5,000-population village of East Palestine, located just over the Pennsylvania border, had to be evacuated while officials cleaned up. Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since declared the air, water and soil safe, returning residents are dubious.
Federal regulators say they’re going to amp up track inspections on hazmat routes.
“I fully recognize this derailment continues to upend daily lives. The needs of East Palestine and the rail safety needs of all communities is at the top of my mind,” Bose said. “The U.S. Department of Transportation will continue to use our tools to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the derailment and to improve freight rail safety across the country.”
Norfolk Southern has established a fund to help the East Palestine community and committed to a full, federally mandated cleanup.
Jeremy Ferguson, president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, said after Wednesday’s meeting that he was encouraged both for residents and workers.
“This was a good start,” Ferguson told CNBC. “It’s important these safety issues are addressed. No one wants another East Palestine. The safety discussion of employees must be addressed. The running of these long trains was a point of discussion, as well.”
With News Wire Services
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