The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, highlighted safety regulation failures, indifference and anti-union bias.
Initially, it was reported as an accidental derailment — which happens on average every other day — but not a health risk. However, townspeople have reported health problems for more than a month since.
According to the Washington Post, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairperson Jennifer Homendy called the derailment “100 percent preventable”.
According to the preliminary report by the NTSB, the train — with 150 rail cars attached — had 38 cars derailed, including 11 tankers containing hazardous materials that immediately exploded. Twelve other cars were damaged after the fires erupted. A wheel-bearing failure was cited as the cause.
The company concerned, Norfolk Southern — one of the country’s largest rail freight carriers — said little at first. When locals began reporting toxic smells, polluted water and rashes, the company said there was nothing to worry about. Representatives then refused to attend a public meeting, alleging fear for their lives.
Ohio Republican Governor Mike DeWine visited the town and assured people things would be taken care of. He activated the state’s National Guard on February 5 to help in the clean-up. A “shelter-in-place” order was issued, and an evacuation order issued for the area within a 2.4-kilometre radius.
DeWine and Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro met with Norfolk Southern executives who suggested a “controlled burn off” of the toxins as the safest procedure. Otherwise, they were told, a massive explosion could occur, as car tanks were filled under pressure with a highly flammable gas, vinyl chloride.
The controlled burn happened on February 6, resulting in a huge column of thick black smoke, which led to complaints of foul air and drinking water. Spillage had already contaminated the river and groundwater, killing fish and vegetation.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) installed air monitors and collected air samples. But it wasn’t until a month later, on March 4, that the EPA warned that the burning of vinyl chloride produced highly toxic dioxins, and instructed the company to test for these poisons.
According to the New York Times, the EPA also issued an order demanding that the company pay for all clean-up costs associated with the disaster and required that the company “attend and participate in public meetings at EPA’s request”.
Dioxins belong to the group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants. Experiments have shown they affect a number of the body’s organs and systems.
Once dioxins enter the body, they are absorbed by and stored in fat tissue. Their half-life in the body is estimated to be seven to 11 years. Short-term exposure to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, nervous system, endocrine system and reproductive functions. Chronic exposure of animals to dioxins has resulted in several types of cancer.
The NYT reported that a confrontational meeting at East Palestine High School between the community and officials from Norfolk Southern occurred on March 4, following the EPA’s increased testing mandate.
“The discontent with both the company and government agencies was evident just minutes into the meeting as people booed and scoffed at the report that tests had yet to show significant levels of contaminants. As introductions and statements dragged on, the crowd grew increasingly belligerent and demanded an opportunity to ask questions about their lingering ailments.
“‘Why did you wait so long?’ One man yelled out.”
It is inconceivable that the EPA and Norfolk Southern chemists didn’t know that burning vinyl chloride produces dioxins.
“As the director of the Ohio EPA, Anne M Vogel reiterated that testing of the water had yet to show high levels of contaminants another woman yelled out ‘What about private wells? We’ll just stay here and die.’
“And as the EPA officials reiterated that dioxin testing had begun, people yelled out, ‘Start now!’ and ‘It’s too late!’’’
Listen to rail workers
No one listened to the rail workers and their unions, who demanded help from the state and federal governments and the rail carriers. The rail unions have warned about catastrophes like this for decades.
The union representing track maintenance workers said that in the month after the East Palestine derailment, workers continue to experience health problems.
Rail workers have also complained about safety for years. As reported by the Guardian on March 3: “In late 2016, Stephanie Griffin, a former Union Pacific carman, went to her manager with concerns that she was getting pushback for tagging — or reporting for repair — railcars. Her manager told her it was ok to skip inspections.
“Griffin asked if the manager could put that in writing. 'That’s weird,' the manager said. 'We have 56 other people who are not bad-ordering [marking for repair] stuff out there. You’re definitely not going to get in trouble for it.' Griffin said her boss was concerned that inspections and repairs increased downtime and 'corporate offices would start berating management to release the cars'.
“As part of her job at the railyard, Griffin was to inspect all railcars on inbound journeys for defects and put a tag on them to send the cars to the railroad yard repair shop. On outbound journeys, workers were supposed to check the cars’ air brakes and make a final inspection. But, she said, management, at the behest of corporate, undermined workers’ effectiveness on the job."
The Guardian revealed how common such incidents are in the United States in a February 25 article. Analysing data collected by the EPA and non-profit groups that track chemical accidents, the Guardian said “accidental releases — be they through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills — are happening consistently across the country. By one estimate these incidents are occurring, on average, every two days”.
“In the first seven weeks of 2023 alone, there were more than 30 incidents recorded by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, roughly one every day and a half. Last year the coalition recorded 188, up from 177 in 2021. The group has tallied more than 470 incidents since it started counting in April 2020.”
The deregulation of transportation, including the rail carriers, has bipartisan support. Key legal changes occurred in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.
In an article in the Regulatory Review, Jerry Ellig wrote: “President Jimmy Carter signed the Motor Carrier Act in 1980. The legislation removed federal entry controls in interstate trucking and made it easier for carriers to reduce rates.
Carter also signed the Staggers Rail Act in 1980, which “deregulated rail rates for some traffic, allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to deregulate rates for other traffic, permitted railroads and shippers to negotiate unregulated contract rates, and established criteria for regulating rates if a shipper has no cost-effective alternative to a single railroad. The legislation also made it easier for railroads to discontinue offering service on unprofitable routes, and it ended the practice of 'open routing', which allowed shippers to force a railroad to carry freight between virtually any two points on its system”.
As Ellig explained: “Between 1980 and 1996, total operating expenses of the largest, class one railroads fell by half. By the late 1990s, the miles of class ome trackage fell by almost 30 percent, and class one railroad employment fell by about 60 percent.
“New short line railroads formed to operate some of the trackage shed by the largest railroads.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Norfolk Southern made record profits. Along with other carriers it reduced its workforce and set up a system where employees were put on 24-hour call, paid little or no sick leave and faced discipline for missing work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 40,000 jobs have been cut since 2018.
The ongoing clean-up in Ohio has revealed plans by Norfolk Southern and the state to move dangerous wastewater from East Palestine to poor communities in Houston, Detroit and other cities. Activists have long fought against this “environmental racism”.
Not surprisingly, on February 26, the EPA allowed Norfolk Southern to resume transportation of hazardous materials from the crash site to these cities.
The East Palestine derailment exposes both major ruling parties’ failures and complicity, and the greed of big rail carriers and their lack of concern for the workforce and public.
A key response must begin with listening to the rail workers who drive the trains, fix the tracks and clean up the disasters and empowering their unions to stop the bosses from putting profits ahead of human life.