The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have both approved legislation to block the threat of a national rail strike that would affect the water industry’s access to essential water treatment chemicals. The legislation is expected to be quickly signed by President Biden, rendering any planned strike illegal.
The labor dispute, between several U.S. rail carriers and 12 rail unions representing 125,000 workers, centers on working conditions including paid sick leave. If an agreement is not reached by as early as Dec. 9, rail service could be heavily disrupted by strikes. Disruption to rail service could have immense economic consequences and could harm access to water treatment chemicals.
The legislation forces the unions to accept a tentative agreement and makes striking illegal.
The threat of a disruption to railways had already affected access to water treatment chemicals this year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that prior to Sept. 16, a previous negotiation deadline in the dispute, rail carriers issued embargoes on the transport of hazardous materials, including: chlorine, sodium hypochlorite, sodium hydroxide, anhydrous ammonia, ferric and ferrous chloride, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, phosphoric acid, and carbon dioxide.
To prepare, EPA recommends that utilities contact their primary suppliers to discuss the potential impacts and timelines of rail service disruptions on chemical deliveries. In these discussions, the agencies recommend emphasizing the importance of consistent deliveries to maintain operations. The agency also recommends using the EPA Chemical Suppliers and Manufacturers Locator Tool to identify alternate suppliers.
Leading water sector organizations have urged Congress to intervene in the rail strike to ensure water and wastewater utilities’ steady operation. An open letter urging Congress to intervene in early September can been signed by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), the National Rural Water Association (NRWA), the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), and the Water Environment Federation (WEF).
“Communities will be unable to produce safe drinking water, resulting in many boil water advisories and the threat of waterborne disease outbreaks,” say the agencies. “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.”
The agencies signed another letter urging President Biden to intervene on Nov. 4.
The legislation would force the parties to accept a tentative agreement that eight of the 12 unions had ratified.
On Sept. 15, collective bargaining negotiations reached the tentative agreement, which needed ratification votes by members of the 12 unions. The agreement would increase wages by 24 percent during the five-year period from 2020 through 2024, include $1,000 annual lump sum payments, make adjustments to healthcare/benefits, and add an additional personal leave day for employees.
However, some union members have said that the tentative agreement did not provide adequate paid sick leave, which can be limited for many rail workers and has been a key issue in the dispute. Eight of the unions had ratified the tentative agreement, while four unions did not.
The House also passed a separate bill to address rail workers’ limited paid sick leave. Passed in a narrow 221-207 vote, the bill would add seven days of paid sick leave per year for rail workers. The Senate quickly rejected the measure.