HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Hazardous materials roll through the Midstate on trains every day. And as western Pennsylvanian residents living along the Ohio state line learned in recent weeks, chemicals on trains can be a very dangerous thing.
abc27’s Dennis Owens was at a senate hearing on Monday where he found out why states are mostly powerless when it comes to regulating rail companies or fining them for wrongdoings.
The Senate Transportation Committee had many questions after the train derailment across the Pennsylvania state line a few weeks ago.
“To go 20 miles with what appears to have been a fire, that was multiple detectors that failed or were ignored. Do we know what happened?” asked Senator Camera Bartolotta (R-Washington/Green/Beaver Counties).
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“Any train crew member has the authority to stop his train for any purpose,” said Carl Belke, president of the Keystone State Railroad Association.
Many officials and legislators spoke at the senate hearing.
“What are we looking at in terms of the training of our existing firefighters, hazmat, EMS, and what should we be looking at to make sure they’re prepared for the next one,” said Senator Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny County).
Director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Randy Padfield said there are workshops, drills, and teachable moments, like East Palestine, that can help first responders prepare.
“Every county is supposed to have a hazardous materials response team,” Padfield said. “We take a look at those lessons learned and bring them back and say what can we do better?”
Senator and Chairman of the Transportation Committee Marty Flynn (D) asked a railroad association executive if there are manpower requirements on trains pulling hazardous materials.
“So you could have a huge train with just one person on it and that’s it?” Flynn asked. An expert responded, saying the standard crew on a train today is two to three people.
Belke insists better technology makes trains safer with less manpower running them. However, Flynn asked for some proof.
“I’d like to see some data on that I don’t agree with that,” he said.
Something with little disagreement, however, is the fact that states like Pennsylvania are virtually powerless when it comes to regulating railroads.
“The ability of the Commonwealth to have its own set of regulations with respect to interstate commerce is prohibited by that section of the U.S. Constitution,” said Mike Carroll, the acting Transportation Secretary.
Pennsylvania can’t stop railroad companies from bringing hazardous materials into the Commonwealth or fine those companies for how they operate, but they can send them the bill when something goes wrong.
“There’s a lot of federal regulation here that is dictating and controlling the transportation of hazardous materials,” said Senator Wayne Langerholc (R), chair of the Transportation Committee.
“If my railroad has an incident, we’re paying for the problem,” said Belke.
One railroad executive said trains are safer now than ever before and that 99.9% of hazardous materials reach their destination without incident. However, that offers little comfort to the fraction of a percent living on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border.