On Thursday, a BNSF train derailed on the Swinomish reservation in Washington state, spilling some 5,000 gallons of diesel. No one appears hurt after the derailment. But it only adds to the over 1,000 derailments that happen every year in America—any of which could turn into the next East Palestine, as lax rules allow toxic trains to move sans regulation and corporations continue making trains longer and crews smaller.
Since the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a lot of focus over the last month has been on Norfolk Southern, the rail company responsible for the disaster. But Thursday’s news serves as a reminder that issues in the rail industry are not limited to one company. In the past month, BNSF, the largest rail company in the United States, has not been shy about its efforts to block the growing push for rail regulation.
As Sludge has reported, BNSF led the rail industry in contributions to state candidates last year with $6.8 million spent. It was also the leader in state lobbying, spending another $12.7 million since 2003.
After the Norfolk Southern train derailment, BNSF’s political action committee spent the rest of the month throwing $15,000 a piece to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The company sent $5,000 to the Association of American Railroads, a group that aggressively lobbies Congress on behalf of America’s rail giants.
BNSF also donated $2,500 to Republican Representative Sam Graves, who is the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The donation is not an aberration. During the 2022 election cycle, Graves was the leading recipient of donations from the railroad industry—more than the other 434 members of the House.
All this while Congress now considers bipartisan legislation to enact industry-wide safety measures on railroads.
Just one day before the Ohio derailment, BNSF also donated $1,000 to North Dakota’s House Republican leadership, as well as to its Senate Republican Caucus fund. What may sound random is actually part of an ongoing relationship with North Dakota’s congressional delegation. One of at-large Representative Kelly Armstrong’s top contributors is BNSF, which has given the Republican member of Congress $25,000. Berkshire Hathaway, the parent company of BNSF, has given Senators John Hoeven $35,000 and Kevin Cramer $25,000.
And money talks. Hoeven has seemingly expressed little public concern about the rail industry since the East Palestine derailment. In 2021, however, he, Cramer, and Armstrong did send a letter to the Surface Transportation Board advocating for the Canadian Pacific, or CP, and Kansas City Southern, or KCS, merger. As The American Prospect reports, Hoeven was rewarded with $3,000 from the Association of American Railroads, which includes CP, KSC, and BNSF as members.
As far as Cramer goes, he applauded the merger between CP and KCS on Wednesday. Since the East Palestine derailment, he’s used the accident to advocate for building more pipelines, rather than making railroads safer. When asked about a bipartisan effort in the Senate to pass railroad reform, Cramer expressed a fairly lax analysis of how he and other Republicans felt. “Nobody jumped up and said, ‘Sign me up,’” he told The Washington Post. “I didn’t hear anybody say, ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ either.”
Meanwhile, Cramer has previously signed off on a bill to prohibit the Department of Transportation from issuing any regulation to limit the transportation of liquefied natural gas by rail.
Norfolk Southern has been under a magnifying glass since one of its trains disastrously derailed in East Palestine—and for good reason. But let BNSF’s unbashful spending campaign serve as a reminder that the wider industry is ruthless and can readily buy more lenience if attention strays elsewhere.