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The recent Ohio derailment disaster involving a train carrying vinyl chloride — a carcinogenic gas used to make PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic — could likely have been prevented if U.S. Department of Transportation regulators had insisted “ruthlessly cost-cutting” companies like Norfolk Southern implement proper safety standards, according to award-winning journalist and author, David Sirota.

Sirota — founder and editor of the investigative news outlet The Lever and columnist for The Guardian — said the disaster was an “emblematic” example of how “agency capture” results in regulators “basically doing the bidding of the industries they’re supposed to be regulating.”

Leading up to the Ohio disaster, U.S. regulators in both the Obama and Trump administrations made “deliberate decisions” to not insist industry implement safety rules as recommended by experts, Sirota said.

“I think America is learning a lesson here — which is important — that we need people in regulatory positions who are not afraid to push powerful corporations,” Sirota told Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman and chief litigation counsel for Children’s Health Defense during an episode of “RFK Jr. The Defender Podcast.”

Obama adopts narrow definition of ‘high-hazard flammable train’

Sirota told Kennedy the Obama administration — prompted by a string of disastrous train derailments — “finally” started considering new regulations for trains carrying potentially hazardous materials.

The definition for what constitutes a “high-hazard flammable train” was a key detail in the new rules, Sirota said, because “from there, that means who the rules are applied to.”

Experts with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board came to Obama’s regulators and said the definition should be broad and cover all sorts of hazardous materials — including crude oil, ethanol and chemicals like vinyl chloride.

“The chemical industry then came to the Obama administration, and said, ‘No, no, no,’” Sirota said, leading the administration in 2015 to make the “very fateful decision” to adopt a narrow definition for a high-hazard flammable train.

“The Ohio train — which blew up into a giant fireball [with] hundred-foot flames — was not actually classified as a high-hazard flammable train,” Sirota said.

After lobbyists donate $6 million to Republicans, Trump repeals brake upgrade mandate

The 2015 new rules at least included one important safety provision, Sirota said — trains covered by the rules would be required to upgrade to a more advanced braking technology, “known as electronic pneumatic braking systems,” to prevent derailments.

“It’s worth mentioning that before that mandate, the railway industry itself had been touting this [by] saying, ‘These [upgraded] breaks work really well to prevent derailments and to mitigate the impact when derailments happen,’” Sirota said.

“But the moment there was floated a mandate — that the government was going to say, ‘Okay, well if they’re so good, we’re going require them’ — the industry flipped sides and started lobbying against it.”

First, industry lobbyists got Senate Republicans to start championing a repeal of the break rule. Then, after more than $6 million dollars in campaign contributions flowed to Republican campaigns, the Trump administration in 2017 repealed the brake upgrade rule.

The Biden administration has not acted to reinstate the brake rule or expand the kinds of trains subjected to tougher safety regulations, Sirota added.

Biden thought Ohio disaster would ‘just blow over’

Sirota told Kennedy he thought the Biden administration had hoped news of the recent Ohio train disaster would “just blow over,” since there are now roughly 1,000 train derailments in the U.S. every year.

“What I think is interesting about that is if you read between the lines, the insinuation is, ‘Well, look, America’s gotten used to this, right? This is just normal now.’”

The problem is that no one is held accountable, Sirota said. “This is flagrant, in-your-face corruption.”

According to Sirota, the railway industry uses a “ruthlessly cost-cutting” business model “focused solely on profits and buybacks … which effectively enrich executives and shareholders.” Then industry “presumes” it won’t be regulated and won’t face real consequences if and when things go bad.

Kennedy and Sirota discussed how railway companies like Norfolk Southern and financial corporations — including Vanguard, BlackRock, JP Morgan and Wells Fargo — rack up billions annually in profits via stock buybacks.

There’s a huge need for governmental regulation, Sirota said, particularly because railway companies have a monopoly on transporting goods — so consumers who are appalled by a company’s irresponsible behavior do not generally have the option of taking their business elsewhere.

Sirota pointed to Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, as an example of a regulator who understands her job is not to appease the industries she regulates, but “to protect the public and push powerful people around, if that’s what it takes to protect people.”

“I think that’s what we need at the Department of Transportation,” Sirota said.

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