On 3 February 2023, fifty cars of a train derailed in East Palestine, an Ohio town near the border of Pennsylvania. The train cars contained, among other things, vinyl chloride, a substance that raises the risk of developing several types of cancers. The derailment caused an enormous fire that required the evacuation of a three-square mile area surrounding the crash.
Residents were told that they could safely return to their houses once railroad safety crews burned off the rest of the vinyl chloride from the derailment. The toxins from the cars also spilled into the nearby Ohio River, and although Ohio Governor Mike DeWine originally said that people should not be concerned about the resulting pollution from the derailment, he later added at a press conference that those who used private wells close to the spill should only use bottled water.
Understandably, those living close to the chemical spill are concerned about the poisons that were released into their town’s air and water. People in East Palestine have complained about headaches and irritated eyes when walking outside. The vinyl chloride spill killed thousands of fish in the Ohio River, and people have reported livestock, wildlife, and pets to be sick or dying.
At the same time, EPA administrator Michael Regan has tried to assure residents of the area that the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink. Officials have been generally dismissive of residents’ concern about their contaminated town. Perhaps some of this indifference comes from the fact that East Palestine is not a wealthy community. The median household income is $46,436, compared to the US average of $67,521.
Is it possible that the officials are right on this one and that people’s concern over their health and reports of sick animals are unwarranted? Perhaps. But the justifiable fears of residents of East Palestine have also been glossed over by the authorities, as if those without university degrees and special training are incapable of making any useful observations. There is a certain element of classism in this papering over of residents’ concerns. It would be far from the first time that the concerns of a poisoned Ohio community were ignored or covered up, as shown in the 2019 docufilm Dark Waters, about Dupont’s contamination of a town with hazardous chemicals.
The derailment itself was caused by a faulty axel. But there is more than just a nonfunctional mechanical part to blame in the catastrophe. First of all, the train carrying the volatile vinyl chloride was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train.” Regulatory agencies were convinced by lobbyists to exempt many trains from these stricter regulations when the current laws were being drafted.
Although Norfolk Southern, owner of the railway, has set up a $1 million fund for the individuals affected by the derailment, it also lobbied successfully against safety regulations proposed by the Obama administration and then spent billions in stock buybacks. In addition, the company cut staff despite warnings of safety concerns with an understaffed railroad – these safety concerns due to understaffing were one of the major grievances brought by striking railroad workers last year.
During the Trump administration, a regulation meant to require better braking systems on US trains was killed. Could the $6 million donated to Republican campaigns that election cycle have had anything to do with that decision? Electronic braking systems can stop a train much more quickly than traditional braking systems, and can help prevent catastrophic derailments like the kind that just happened in East Palestine. Finally, regulators under the Biden made no move to reinstate the braking regulation.
The East Palestine derailment was not the only one in the past month. As of the time of this writing, there have been 5 derailments in the month of February. The most recent one in Michigan also involved a car that was carrying hazardous materials. Will these disasters make this administration overcome the pressure of lobbyists and tempting campaign donations from the railroad industry in order to address safety concerns? I am not optimistic, but time will tell.
To read more about lobbying and the Norfolk Southern Derailment, I would recommend this article: https://www.levernews.com/rail-companies-blocked-safety-rules-before-ohio-derailment/