In the wake of the Paulsboro train derailment and bridge collapse, watchdog groups are questioning if there should be more federal oversight of the rail industry.
The railroad industry is currently responsible for inspecting its own bridges and U.S. Congress can change that.
Some watchdog groups say big railroad companies like CSX, Conrail (the company that owns the bridge in Paulsboro)'s parent company, carry clout with Congress because of the money they give to politicians. The Center for Responsive Politics (OpenSecrets.org) calls CSX a "heavy hitter" when it comes to campaign donations.
"In terms of campaign contributions this year, CSX is No. 138 out of more than 20,000," said Center for Responsive Politics communications director Viveca Novak.
The watchdog group Common Cause says that kind of spending can buy special access.
"The public needs to know these same congressmen have been getting thousands of dollars of money from this company at the same time letting them police themselves," said Common Cause Pennsylvania’s Associate Director for Development James Browning.
U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) visited the derailment site in Paulsboro Thursday with fellow Congressmen Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and NBC10 Investigative reporter Harry Hairston asked each Congressman about the concerns that money given to political campaigns could keep the status quo in place about self-inspection.
"I find the question a little bit offensive that you would suggest that somehow a campaign contribution would influence the ability for us to go in here and ask the difficult questions and doing what needs to be done," Meehan said Thursday.
"The public safety comes first, assurances to the people that we represent come first, and I know that all three of us are committed to that," LoBiondo said.
According the Center for Responsive Politics’ review of Federal Election Commission contributions in the 2011/2012 election cycle, Congress got $1.4 million from CSX's political action committee, its employees and their families. By shelling out more than $3.1 million so far this year alone and almost $4.4 million last year, CSX also ranks No. 117 out of more than 4,200 lobbyists, according to OpenSecrets.org.
- Search for how much in contributions your lawmaker received from CSX
"I've honestly have seen no connection between the rail industry's political contributions and this," Andrews said.
CSX tells NBC10 that there is considerable oversight of railroads at the federal level and the industry continues to make enormous strides in safety. And, that their lobbying is fully disclosed and compliant with the law.
This is an e-mail the NBC10 Investigators received from CSX spokesman Gary Sease when they asked about this issue:
Our lobbying activities are focused on making sure that lawmakers and policymakers understand the significant environmental and economic benefits of rail transportation. In addition to those benefits, the industry continues to make enormous strides in safety. There is considerable oversight of railroads at the federal level, and I recommend you visit www.fra.dot.gov to see the extent of that oversight.
It might be within the law, but some feel that doesn’t mean that the current inspection process shouldn’t be changed.
"My constituents can't slap an inspection sticker on their car and say it passed once a year. They have to go get it inspected…. Conrail shouldn't be able to do the either," said Andrews.
"I think that one thing we've already learned here is that there's been too much self reporting and too much self inspection," Andrews said. "When the evidence is gathered, as both of my colleagues have said, I think we need to consider a new system of inspection."