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Rail strike threatens water and energy supplies, prompting White House planning

Sept. 13, 2022 Updated Tue., Sept. 13, 2022 at 8:37 p.m.

A BNSF Railway Co. grain train heads west on the railroad’s Southern Transcontinental line in Belva, Okla., on Aug. 19, 2015. {span} {/span}  (Bloomberg )
A BNSF Railway Co. grain train heads west on the railroad’s Southern Transcontinental line in Belva, Okla., on Aug. 19, 2015. {span} {/span} (Bloomberg )
By Jeff Stein and Lauren Kaori Gurley Washington Post

A national railroad strike could derail critical deliveries of chlorine to wastewater treatment plants and coal to utility plants, among other potentially crippling disruptions, prompting senior White House aides Tuesday to review contingency options for protecting the nation’s drinking water and energy supply.

White House aides are looking at how to ensure essential products carried by rail – such as food, energy, and key health products – could still reach their final destination even in the event of a potential strike.

Senior officials have looked at how highways, ports and waterways can be used to offset any damage caused, while also talking to top officials in the shipping, freight and logistics industries.

President Joe Biden was personally briefed on the matter Tuesday morning after he called the carriers and unions on Monday to press them to accept a deal, a White House official said.

Senior officials at the White House are now leading daily meetings with the Agriculture Department, Transportation Department, Energy Department and other top agencies about how to mitigate the impact.

Biden aides in particular are working to ensure hazardous materials carried by rail are safely transported without hurting workers.

The White House is also studying potential authorities to mitigate any damage but has made no announcement.

The White House’s planning was described by multiple people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal planning.

At issue is a contract agreement between railway carriers and two unions, which represent 57,000 conductors and engineers, and a federally mandated “cooling-off” period that ends Friday, which opens the possibility of a strike or lockout.

Some freight carriers have begun limiting services and parking trains in what appears to be preparations for a lockout.

Amtrak, which carries passengers on freight lines, canceled some long-distance routes Monday.

Contract negotiations on Zoom between the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division and the rail carriers carried late into the day on Monday, without the parties reaching a deal, labor officials from both unions said.

The most important issue holding up an agreement for the unions are some of the largest carriers’ points-based attendance policies that penalize workers, up to termination, for going to routine doctor’s visits or attending to family emergencies.

Union members do not receive a single sick day, paid or unpaid.

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