AMWA CEO: “Major public health crisis” averted as rail strike agreement reached

The water utility sector is applauding a tentative agreement between railroad operators and their union representatives, which averted a work stoppage that would have halted chlorine shipments to water systems and put public health at risk.

“This agreement has averted a major public health crisis,” Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies CEO Tom Dobbins said in a statement last week. “If freight rail service had halted, water systems from coast to coast would have been at risk of running out of essential disinfectant chemicals, potentially leading to boil water notices for millions of Americans.”

Prior to the agreement, six leading water sector organizations urged the U.S. Congress to intervene in the strike that would threaten the ability of water and wastewater utilities to safely provide services across the United States.

“Unless freight rail service for chlorine returns to normal soon, communities will be unable to produce safe drinking water, resulting in many boil water advisories and the threat of waterborne disease outbreaks,” the six organizations said in the letter to U.S. House and Senate leaders. “Inadequate disinfection represents a threat to public health and a significant disruption to daily life, local economies, and critical services like hospitals and schools. Public health and environmental protection will also be placed at risk for communities that use chlorine for wastewater disinfection.”

Letter signers included the American Water Works Association, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, National Rural Water Association, the National Association of Water Companies, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and the Water Environment Federation.

In an effort to avert such a strike, a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) was formed by the Biden administration in July 2022. The PEB issued a report on Aug. 16 that included recommendations for ending the stalemate in negotiations and prohibited work stoppages during a 30-day cooling off period. The prohibition on work stoppages ended at midnight on Sept. 16. In a precautionary move, multiple railroads started to embargo the transport of hazardous materials last Monday.

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