Trains & Regulations

Flammable Oil Trains Still Roll Through Spokane…

Unless you’ve cut all ties with the media, by this time you have heard and read multiple articles addressing the train derailment and toxic chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, near the border with Pennsylvania. The derailment occurred on February 3. It looks like the derailment occurred on account of an overheated (and not properly monitored?) wheel bearing in one of the trucks (the undercarriage where the wheels are mounted). People are naturally upset, and, no surprise, right wing media are trying to spin the story in favor of Republicans. It seems that Republicans are outraged, simply outraged! that the Biden administration in general, and Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, in particular, didn’t have stronger regulations in place to prevent just such a disaster. 

This criticism coming from anyone in the Republican Party rings totally hollow. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-CD5, Eastern Washington) and nearly all of her fellow Republicans have consistently criticized all regulation as hampering the wonders of the free market. In the first year of the Trump administration (2017) they showed their colors by passing two bills through the U.S. House: H.R. 26, The REINS Act--Regulations of the Executive in Need of Scrutiny and H.R. 998, SCRUB–Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome Act of 2017. Fortunately, neither came to a vote in the Senate (perhaps because the Senate was distracted by trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act). These bills’ long names and acronyms properly express their intent: to make it immensely harder for the Executive Branch to establish regulations and to make it easier, even mandatory, to re-evaluate and toss out regulations that meet certain broad criteria. Similar bills are put forward by Republicans in every two year Congress—but they only come to a floor vote when Republicans are in control, like they were in 2017. Any Republican who calls for more regulation of anything (other than books in libraries and classrooms) is blowing smoke. 

Doug Muder in his February 27th entry in his “Weekly Sift” (if you’re not signed up for Muder’s column—you should be) nailed the lesson from East Palestine (the bold is mine):

Long-term, I think the main lesson to be learned from this disaster is that government needs to regulate business. Every year or two I see another study totaling up some awesome quantity of money that government regulations “cost” the economy. ($1.9 trillion a year, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute.) Typically, these studies list every dollar companies spend to avoid killing people and poisoning the land — and they completely ignore the benefits of companies not killing people and poisoning the land. (If it really does cost us $1.9 trillion each year to avoid living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, that sounds to me like money well spent.)

The Obama administration tried to require railroads to improve their braking systems. (A better technology has existed for decades.) It also wanted to strengthen cars that carry hazardous materials, so that they’d be less likely to rupture in an accident. But the industry claimed that installing the new systems would be too expensive, so the regulation was never implemented. The Trump administration then reversed course and slashed railroad regulations — because, you know, regulations just get in the way of corporations who otherwise would always do the right thing.

Railroad lobbyists have been very successful in fending off any regulation at the federal level that might reduce their bottom line, the more so with Republican than with Democratic administrations. 

If regulating trains at a federal level is so challenging one might imagine that a city should try to defend itself. Take the City of Spokane with hundreds of oil tank cars rolling through downtown every day, each one of them a potential bomb of volatile oil that could level hospitals, high schools, and whole city blocks. When such local ordinances are contemplated, the industry turns the argument used at the federal level on its head: We can’t have every city we pass through regulating trains, such regulation must be done on the federal level! 

Does anyone remember City of Spokane’s November 2017 ballot Proposition 2 “Ordinance Regarding Prohibition of Oil and Coal Shipment by Rail” that would have required a fee for each tanker of un-stabilized oil or uncovered coal that rolled through downtown Spokane? Proposition 2 set off alarm bells in corporate board rooms. What if other cities enacted similar ordinances? We must squash this like a bug! Industry cash flowed to the Political Action Committee (PAC) “COMM TO PROTECT SPOKANES ECONOMY – 2017”. Arguments were made that the City would become embroiled in expensive litigation. Ozzie Knezovich and Michael Cathcart came out against it. From the Spokesman:

The railroads, coal mining concerns and companies behind the proposed Vancouver Energy Terminal poured thousands of dollars into the campaign to defeat Proposition 2, with ads appearing on social media, TV and radio. The Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy, a politcal group funding the effort to defeat the measure, raised $264,000 [actually, according to the PDC, it was $368,042 in the final reporting], the bulk of that coming from BNSF. By comparison, the Safer Spokane group raised just $7,000, the bulk of that coming from individual contributors.

With industry’s lobbying money weighing on the electoral scales in a ratio of 53:1, Proposition 2 gathered only 43% of the vote. Today the tanker cars full of volatile, untreated, explosive Bakken crude continue to roll through downtown Spokane. When will an overheated bearing cause a derailment and explosion in Spokane that dwarfs the disaster in East Palestine? 

Keep to the high ground,