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Rail-Lobbyist Thune May Block Railroad Safety Bill

The Republican Party has gone off the rails, electing dangerous demagogues and moonbats who’ve made a toxic mess of their party and American democracy.

So it figures that Republican John Thune would stand in the way of legislation to prevent real train derailments and toxic disasters:

Ohio Sens. J.D. Vance (R) and Sherrod Brown (D) unveiled a rail safety proposal last week that has already won over the White House and top Democrats. But winning support from Republicans is proving to be harder as some question if it is too soon to move on a bill that could have unintended consequences.

“We’ll take a look at what’s being proposed, but an immediate quick response heavy on regulation needs to be thoughtful and targeted,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told The Hill.

“Let’s define the problem. Let’s figure out what the solutions are and if there are things we need to fix, we’ll fix them,” Thune continued [Al Weaver and Karl Evers-Hillstrom, “Bipartisan Rail Safety Bill Runs into Republican Roadblock,” The Hill, 2023.03.06].

Gee, John, it seems the toxic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio last month pretty well defined the problem:

Officials in East Palestine should have been notified in advance that a train carrying hazardous material was headed toward them, senators and hearing witnesses said Wednesday. And first responders should have known they were battling a chemical fire and been better prepared for the task with improved training and equipment, they said.

“People deserve to know what chemicals are moving through their communities and how to stay safe in an emergency,” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said. “That includes responders, who risk their lives for each of us every single day. They deserve to be prepared.”

That means they should have access to real-time information and proper communications and planning tools, she said [Jacob Fischler, “Priorities for Rail Safety Bill Debated in U.S. Senate Hearing with Norfolk Southern CEO,” South Dakota Searchlight, 2023.03.22.

The problem exists here in South Dakota, where we ship lots of chemicals on aging rails with overworked trainsmen:

Each year, trains carry nearly 11 billion pounds of chemicals through South Dakota’s cities and countryside, much of it on century-old tracks, a South Dakota News Watch analysis has revealed.

Finding out which specific compounds are in those potentially toxic payloads is extremely difficult or even impossible for the public due to national security concerns and secrecy within railroad companies.

In many cases, state and local officials are kept largely in the dark about what materials are being carried through communities and rural areas. Oftentimes, the nature of materials transported becomes known only after an accident.

…While U.S. per-mile safety data show that rail generally remains a relatively safe method of transportation of goods, rural states like South Dakota tend to have aged rail systems, with infrastructure sometimes built in the late 1800s or early 1900s, said Russell Quimby, an Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad expert and industry consultant.

Some railroad lines, especially shorter branch lines that are common in South Dakota, are not well-equipped to handle modern rail cars that weigh up to 286,000 pounds each and are part of increasingly longer trains, he said.

…The increased focus on rail safety in the U.S. also comes at a time when the railroad industry is staffed in some cases by employees who are vastly overworked, he said.

A nationwide railroad worker strike was narrowly avoided in February after employees complained, in part, that they were underpaid but also were prevented from taking any days off or receiving paid sick time.

Quimby said the railroad industry cut 9% of its workforce in the five years before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now, “the people they have are working to death. They’re cutting all kinds of corners, and after a while, you get employees who are burned out, and that indirectly affects safety, morale and all that” [Bart Pfankuch, “11 Billion-Pound Mystery: The Chemicals South Dakota Trains Carry,” South Dakota News Watch, 2023.03.21].

The Biden Administration is addressing the issue of degraded rail systems with investments from the big infrastructure bill. The railroad safety bill proposed by Ohio Republican rookie Representative J.D. Vance and Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown addresses the other problems:

The bill would require the Transportation Department to establish new safety regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials that are not classified as “high-hazard flammable.” Its provisions would require railroads to notify states when they are passing through, limit train length and restrict speeds.

…The legislation would also require that all trains have a minimum of two crew members aboard — a rule that Norfolk Southern has lobbied against in the past — and would increase the maximum fine that DOT can issue a rail company for safety violations from $225,000 to 1 percent of a railroad’s annual operating income. Norfolk Southern reported a record operating income in 2022 of $4.8 billion. Under the bill, it would be liable for up to $48 million in fines [Valerie Yurk, “Vance: Rail Safety Legislation Is Not ‘Big Government’,” Roll Call, 2023.03.22].

One problem the Vance/Sherrod bill does not address is that Senator Thune is still at heart a corporate railroad lobbyist:

In 2004, a registered lobbyist for a railroad corporation got himself elected to the U.S. Senate, and then he promptly helped his former client become eligible for billions in cheap federal loans in the wake of the company’s hazmat train derailment. The same Republican lawmaker later spearheaded the effort to repeal a major rail safety rule while becoming one of the Senate’s top recipients of campaign cash from the industry.

Now, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is once again going to bat for the industry, positioning himself as a key obstacle to the most substantial rail safety initiative considered by Congress in years.

…Thune’s efforts to slow the measure are being boosted by the rail industry’s advocacy group, which previously gave him an award when he helped kill a train brake rule, and which now employs his former legislative staffer as its top lobbyist.

Thune embodies the railroad industry’s power in Washington, which extends beyond the Senate [Julia Rock, Jordan Uhl, and Matthew Cunningham-Cook, “Rail-Lobbyist-Turned-Senator Could Block Safety Bill,” The Lever, 2023.03.09].

There’s some old saw about fascists at least being able to make the trains run well. Alas, Thune and his fascist party can’t even get that right.

28 Comments

  1. larry kurtz 2023-03-25

    Good eye, Cory.

    The Cretaceous shale between Oacoma and Rapid City or between Fort Pierre and Rapid City is a major obstacle and is one reason passenger rail across South Dakota failed but two east/west rail routes across South Dakota exclusively for freight is lunacy.

  2. Eve Fisher 2023-03-25

    Ah, the GOP paradise, where deregulation and low taxes are the answers to every ill in the universe.*
    *Some exceptions apply, including safety (including food, railroads, water, air, pregnant women, children, infants, cars, planes, travel. For the full list, read the fine print carefully. Check with your doctor to see if this will be right for you and your family.)

  3. larry kurtz 2023-03-25

    Democratic New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is at odds with the US Department of Energy and Holtec International who seem to believe transporting diluted nuclear waste over and over America’s railroads and highways is completely harmless.

    But that darned Supremacy Clause Republicans love to hate anyway.

  4. Donald Pay 2023-03-25

    Community Right to Know laws exist for “facilities,” and I thought transportation was also covered. Transportation seems to be a weak link. If you store stuff on site there is a requirement to disclose it to emergency response in local communities so that firefighter, etc., know what they face in an emergency. I haven’t followed these regulations for a couple decades, but it appears the regulation of transportation of these substances, or their enforcement has some problems/loopholes that need to be addressed.

    The Montecello nuclear plant had another leak of radioactive water (tritium) a couple days ago. This one they didn’t hide, like the first one. The plant is now being shut down for maintenance. I hope they shut it down permanently.

  5. Mark Anderson 2023-03-25

    JD Vance will have to keep Putin his blue eyes on the prize to get this passed.
    Those new rail cars would flatten pennies to paper on the railway by our old house in Highmore.

  6. Richard Schriever 2023-03-25

    Gee, when did Thune get his degrees in railroad engineering (as in the construction side of it) and/or human factors engineering (designing things so humans can operate them safely)? How about that degree in mechanical engineering? Johnny? Anyone?

  7. Arlo Blundt 2023-03-25

    Having trains of a hundred cars rolling across the lonesome prairie with just an engineer aboard is a recipe for disaster. Trains aren’t trucks. I remember when they had three or four crew. “Featherbedding” the industry called it, but it had to be safer.

  8. sx123 2023-03-25

    I doubt most people will change their daily routine if notified that toxic chemicals are coming though town, so not sure what the point of a heads up is.

    Volunteer fire departments surely aren’t gong to leave work to be on standby

  9. larry kurtz 2023-03-25

    This in my pile, too but the link to the Argus Leader is gone.

    I would not be surprised if Canadian Pacific were not meeting their requirements, and I would not be surprised if the Surface Transportation Board did nothing about it,” said former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, who helped create the DM&E in the 1980s and was chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “The national railroads are just completely in bed … with both political parties.” In fact, the DM&E’s own birth involved a heavy role of politics — from Pressler himself. As U.S. senator, he stepped in when another railroad wanted to abandon its South Dakota track and instead negotiated the creation of the DM&E. Integral in that process was Pressler’s chief of staff at the time — Schieffer.

  10. jakc 2023-03-26

    Richard Schiever, even if John Thune did get an engineering degree, it’s from Biola, a college that teaches the Rapture is real. Color me skeptical.

  11. larry kurtz 2023-03-26

    Surprise! Watco gave John Thune $13,300 last cycle!

    Watco Companies owns some 43 shortline railroads in North America and Australia but in Chicago the firm has been accused of environmental racism after the US Environmental Protection Agency found high levels of manganese, lead and arsenic in the soil on the city’s Southeast Side. Chicago is a notorious railroad bottleneck where spills of toxic materials are myriad.

    Despite those revelations the State of South Dakota has sold the former Milwaukee Road right of way from Mitchell to Rapid City to Watco instead of deeding it back to the tribal nations signatory to the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868. Based in Pittsburg, Kansas Watco’s biggest customer is Koch Industries, a major campaign contributor to Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and her whims.

    https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/watco-companies/recipients?id=D000030924

  12. larry kurtz 2023-03-26

    Republican is simply another word for Earth hater.

  13. larry kurtz 2023-03-26

    So, if we live in South Dakota for fifty years, still own real estate there but choose to live in a blue state where freedom is an actual reality and contribute to Democrats up north are we still just out of state name callers?

  14. e platypus onion 2023-04-12

    Semi loaded with 40k pounds of contaminated soil from East Palestine turned over on a highway North of EP somewhere. Spilled approx 20k pounds, but no pollution in waterways.

  15. grudznick 2023-06-25

    Mr. onion points out a great case for pipelines and eminent domain.

  16. larry kurtz 2023-06-25

    In 2015 the US Department of Transportation swatted ExxonMobil with a million dollar penalty after the Environmental Protection Agency released an overview of cleanup efforts in the aftermath of the 2011 breach of the Silvertip pipeline that spilled 63,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River upstream of Billings near Laurel.

  17. e platypus onion 2023-06-25

    Pipelines always eventually fail and are inherently harder to inspect and monitor than railroads.

  18. jerry 2023-08-08

    O, thanks. John Thune is a prostitute that even pays for the bed. What a turd.

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