(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump is visiting the small Ohio town reeling from the toxic fallout of a Norfolk Southern Corp (NYSE:). train derailment hoping to capitalize politically on residents’ anger about the initial response by the Biden administration, but the trip is also highlighting the former president’s efforts to roll back rail regulations.

Trump is expected to meet on Wednesday with officials and residents affected by the Feb. 3 accident, which spewed hazardous chemicals into the air and ground of the community of about 4,700 people near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, forcing an evacuation as authorities intentionally vented and burned tank cars to prevent an explosion.

Federal and state authorities and Norfolk Southern have pledged to to do whatever it takes to clean up the site and ensure residents’ safety, including setting up a health clinic and removing contaminated soil and water. But the accident spurred complaints that US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other officials didn’t do enough to respond in the immediate aftermath of the accident.

The former president, who has been trying to fire up his 2024 campaign after a lackluster launch three months ago, says the mere announcement of his visit last week spurred federal action to help affected residents. In a social-media posting on Sunday, he wrote that “those incredible Patriots from East Palestine deserve it — should have happened long ago.”

But the visit to the former battleground state that Trump easily won twice is also casting light on one of the former president’s regulatory rollbacks: The repeal of new braking requirements for certain trains hauling highly hazardous freight put in place by the Obama administration.

While the train spilled a stew of vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals, the rules, which Trump’s Department of Transportation repealed in 2018, wouldn’t have applied because the train wasn’t classified as a “high hazard flammable train.” The category is reserved for certain trains filled with crude and other flammable liquids. 

Even so, if the rule had gone into affect the Norfolk Southern train still likely would have been equipped with the brakes — known as Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brakes — said Cynthia Quarterman, who played a major role in crafting the rule and other train safety requirements as administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration during the Obama administration.

“He should be embarrassed,” Quarterman said of Trump in an interview. “Regulations force people to advance technology,” adding that if the train in question had the brakes “there is no question the accident would have been less dramatic.”

The braking requirement, put in place in 2015 as part of a suite of new safety rules following a number of fiery high-profile train derailments, required railroads to install more responsive electronic braking systems on trains carrying hazardous materials. The requirement would have replaced what the head of the Federal Railroad Administration at the time compared to a “Civil War-era braking system” that uses air pressure instead.

But the rules came under fire from the rail industry, including Norfolk Southern, as being too expensive and the Trump administration rescinded them after conducting a congressionally mandated analysis that found their costs would be “significantly higher than the expected benefits.” 

Buttigieg has lambasted Norfolk Southern and other railroads for opposing the braking requirements and other safety reforms. 

“Rather than support these efforts to improve rail safety, Norfolk Southern and other rail companies spent millions of dollars in the courts and lobbying members of Congress to oppose common-sense safety regulations, stopping some entirely and reducing the scope of others,” Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Norfolk Southern Sunday.  “As a result, Congress enacted language that undermined the ability of USDOT to sustain the ECP brake requirements, and they were ultimately withdrawn under the Trump administration.”

Buttigieg said Tuesday his department would pursue another electronic braking requirement “to the extent possible under current statute.”

  • Read more: Norfolk Southern Bashed for ‘Incompetence’ as EPA Leads Cleanup

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, is also calling on Congress to require that rail companies notify state and local officials when hazardous materials are being transported, saying at a press conference in East Palestine on Tuesday “the fact that this train did not qualify under current law requiring the railroad company to make that notification is just absurd.”

Republican Senator JD (NASDAQ:) Vance of Ohio, who was elected last November with Trump’s endorsement, visited the derailment site last week and accused the Biden administration of trying to shirk its responsibilities. He said Biden should “stop blaming Donald Trump” for the previous administration’s relaxing of regulations.

President Joe Biden is eager to show he’s engaged in the situation. He made five calls during his trip to Poland on Tuesday for an update on derailment and how the Environmental Protection Agency was holding Norfolk Southern accountable, the White House said.

Trump carried Ohio by about 8 percentage points in both of his elections, and Columbiana County, a working-class area of the state where the train derailed, voted 69% for him in 2016 and 72% in 2020.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.


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