Corporate greed and capitalist irresponsibility led to a fiery, jackknifed derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train in East Palestine, Ohio, on the evening of Feb. 3. This northeast Ohio community is located 22 miles south of Youngstown, Ohio, and 55 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
East Palestine sits on the borders of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, along the Ohio River. Fortunately, there have not been any reported casualties, but this “accident” has triggered suffering, anxiety and serious concern for people living in the area.
Railroad Workers United (RWU), a rank-and-file caucus made up of militant railroad union members, issued a statement Feb. 7 stating that the derailed train was known as the Norfolk Southern train NS 32N. It included 150 cars and “consisted of (only) 3 locomotives, 141 loads and 9 empties.” The train was 9,300-feet long and weighed 18,000 tons.
The collision resulted in a pileup of 50 loaded freight cars. Flames rose to a height of 100 feet. What was most alarming is that 20 of those cars carried toxic, hazardous material. Ten of those cars were involved in the accident; five of them carried vinyl chloride, a colorless gas, which is associated with an increased risk of liver and other cancers, says the National Cancer Institute.
On Feb. 5, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered residents of East Palestine to evacuate immediately: “You need to leave; you just need to leave. This is a matter of life and death.” (AP News, Feb. 6) He did not consider that most working and oppressed people don’t have anywhere to go outside of their homes. Houseless people faced even more challenges. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro urged inhabitants of that state within a 2-mile radius of East Palestine to “stay inside” and “lock the doors.”
As a result, a few thousand residents and people living in the surrounding area were evacuated and displaced. They had no choice but to pack essential belongings, such as clothing, food and medicine, and take their pets on very short notice.
On Feb. 6, crews carried out a controlled release of the toxic materials, including vinyl chloride and phosgene, a toxic gas, in order to prevent an abrupt explosion of the train cars, which would have sent hazardous debris into the neighborhood. The toxins were funneled into a trench and burned off before they hit the air. Smoldering black smoke immediately filled the disaster site, and a fireball erupted.
Authorities claim this was done during the day, so that the gas would disperse faster and prevent an explosion. But officials do not admit that the entire situation could have been prevented, nor that there will likely be long-term deleterious effects on residents and the environment.
Health and environment at risk
Even though residents were relieved to return home on Feb. 8, most are worried about the long-term harmful effects on their health and the environment. This is especially concerning since the impact of most cancer-causing toxins do not appear immediately.
On the same day East Palestine residents were told it was safe for them to return home, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced toxic residue from the derailment was found in the Ohio River. (wkbn 27, Feb. 8)
This Workers World reporter spoke to Melissa Trahan, a vegan-jerky distributor and punk musician from Cleveland, who has relatives in East Palestine. She said, “I am most concerned about the long-term impact on the health of individuals and the environment. I saw the news about dead fish in Leslie Run, several miles from the site of the derailment. I have concerns for those residents with well water, such as my grandmother.”
Trahan expressed concern about her “parents and aunt, who were being reassured by the media that ‘everything was under control,’ but I encouraged them to find shelter elsewhere, just to be safe, moments before my aunt was forced to evacuate. Now that they have been allowed to return, following the release of the dangerous chemicals into the air, they are once again being told ‘everything is okay,’ but I am still unsure things are okay.”
Despite officials’ claim that conditions are safe, local farmers have reported that animals became sick shortly after the wreck, and many have died. Ohio state officials have tried to silence those disclosures.
In one outrageous incident, Evan Lambert, a Black reporter from NewsNation, was brutally arrested Feb. 9 while covering the story near the accident site. He was charged with “resisting arrest” and “criminal trespassing.” (wkbn 27, Feb. 9)
Profit-driven capitalism to blame
RWU released informative statements regarding the accident. Their press release, mentioned earlier, entitled, “Fiery Ohio Train Wreck the Result of PSR,” argues that the disaster could have been prevented, calling the derailment a “19th century-style mechanical failure” of an axle. The statement blames a Wall Street-backed deregulation model known as “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR). This practice led to reduced routine service, critically needed maintenance and even staff. (tinyurl.com/34wyztsm)
At the same time, PSR permits more train weight and length than previously authorized, says RWU. The policy has generated more crashes and increased stress and fatigue for workers. While the NS 32N train had a crew of three — an engineer, a conductor and a conductor trainee — PSR proponents state that only one crew member should perform all three jobs. Yet, the fact is that safe staffing levels, rigorous oversight and routine inspections result in fewer accidents.
PSR is another profit-driven “cost-cutting” scheme, stresses RWU. Railroad barons and train operators have been lobbying Congress to deregulate the railroad industry for decades. They regularly petitioned the Federal Railway Administration for relief from historically required inspections. PSR now gives the bosses excessive discretion in all operations.
RWU revealed in a report on Feb. 8 that Norfolk Southern shareholders “helped kill a federal safety rule aimed at upgrading the rail industry’s Civil War-era braking systems, according to documents reviewed by The Lever.”
The report states: “Documents show that when current transportation safety rules were first created, a federal agency sided with industry lobbyists and limited regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds. The decision effectively exempted many trains hauling dangerous materials — including the one in Ohio — from the ‘high-hazard’ classification and its more stringent safety requirements.” (tinyurl.com/4dcvp6nc)
Solidarity with railroad workers
RWU members and others in the labor movement argue that the railroads should be nationalized, as they are in most countries. In solidarity, the militant rank and file-led United Electrical Workers Union (UE) recently called for public ownership of the railroad industry.
UE’s declaration states: “We demand that Congress immediately begin a process of bringing our nation’s railroads under public ownership. Public ownership of part or all of their rail systems has allowed many other countries to create rail systems that can move people and goods quickly, affordably and in an environmentally sound way. With public ownership, governments can take the long view and make crucial infrastructure investments — and prevent price-gouging.” (ueunion.org, Jan. 30)
More unions should make transitional demands like UE has done in support of railroad workers. The ruling class could provide such reforms but refuses to do so, asserts this writer. Every social gain and reform that improves the material conditions of workers and oppressed people should be welcome.