Environmentalist groups demand reinstatement of scrapped Obama-era train braking rule that may not have even mattered

 February 18, 2023

President Joe Biden's administration and its allies have begun the blame game concerning the toxic Ohio train derailment and, predictably, have pointed the finger at former President Donald Trump for scrapping a proposed 2015 rule on train braking systems under former President Barack Obama.

Now a group of environmentalist organizations is demanding the Biden administration take immediate action on an administrative appeal to reimpose that Obama-era proposed braking rule or face legal challenges, The Hill reported.

Except, even one of the lead attorneys for the coalition of environmentalist groups has acknowledged that it is "unclear" if the proposed rule, had it been in effect, would have made a difference or even applied to the particular train that derailed on Feb. 3 near East Palestine, Ohio.

Reimpose the scrapped rule or else

"It should not take a tragedy like the recent hazardous train derailment in Ohio and the devastation it brought to the community of East Palestine, with water contamination, air pollution, and harm to human health, to turn attention to this issue again," the coalition's letter to Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg said.

"The pending administrative appeal presents an opportunity for your department to review and make a new determination of whether the costs of modern braking systems for high hazardous flammable trains outweigh the benefits of accident and harm prevention," the group continued.

The letter added, "If we do not hear from you with a timeline for such a response, we will consider taking legal action, but we would prefer to work this out with you."

For his part, Sec. Buttigieg has been at the forefront of those who are casting blame for the derailment on former President Trump for scrapping the Obama-era proposed rule that would have required certain trains carrying hazardous loads to use more advanced electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes instead of older braking systems, according to Fox News.

In recent tweets about his department's response to the derailment and resultant highly toxic chemical disaster, Buttigieg said, "We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation (like the braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015), but we are using the powers we do have to keep people safe."

Rule wouldn't have even applied to derailed train

NewsNation reported that the proposed 2015 rule would have required trains carrying Class 3 flammable hazardous materials to use the ECP brakes, which stop all wheels on all train cars simultaneously, as opposed to the older braking system that stops wheels sequentially from the front of the train to the back.

That rule never went into effect, though, as the 2015 law referenced by Buttigieg required a cost-benefit analysis on the ECP brake mandate which found that it would have been cost-prohibitive without any real benefits.

Further, testing of the ECP braking system on some trains found that they suffered from a "significant" failure rate, typically by locking down all of the wheels and rendering the train completely unmoveable and blocking the tracks for other train traffic.

Additionally, even if the rule was in place, it likely wouldn't have even applied to the train that derailed near East Palestine as it was only carrying Class 2 flammable gases -- a fact that was duly noted amid a thread of tweets from Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, that shared what was known of the incident and chastised Buttigieg and others, without naming them, for spreading blatant "misinformation" about the nonexistent braking rule.

Overheated wheel bearing and axle, possible failure of the detection unit

On top of all of that, it is unclear if the upgraded brakes would have even mattered as surveillance videos from right before the derailment showed an axle under the car identified as starting the derailment that was sparking and flaming as a wheel bearing overheated and failed, per an NTSB report on its initial findings thus far.

The big question now, according to CBS News, is whether a so-called wayside "hot box detector" that observes and scans passing trains for such issues and signals a warning was itself defective and perhaps failed to issue an alert in time for the brakes to be applied before the complete failure of the axle and wheel bearing and subsequent derailment.

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