Community confronts company and politicians after train wreck
President Joe Biden’s trip to Kiev, Ukraine, Feb. 20 shocked people living near East Palestine, Ohio, who have been devastated by a Feb. 3 toxic train derailment. The accident involved a 150-car train owned by Norfolk Southern, carrying dangerous and hazardous chemicals, which jackknifed due to a broken axle.
On Feb. 6, state authorities slowly released and burned dangerous chemicals, such as the cancer-causing vinyl chloride and others, into the air. Since then, people in the area have faced various health problems ranging from slight headaches and sore throats to coughing up and vomiting blood. Residents reported mysterious skin rashes and chemical burns. Large numbers of dead birds, fish and animals of all types have been found in the area since the toxins’ release.
Inattention from the Biden administration and disrespect from Norfolk Southern’s management, compounded by official lies, have left an opening for rightist demagogy from Donald Trump, his cronies and fascist elements. Community organizing has countered this offensive.
The Biden administration delayed nearly two weeks, before publicly mentioning the accident. No visit was planned, nor were any planned by the railroad company’s bosses. Only on Feb. 18 did Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw finally meet with East Palestine community members.
Residents of the town expressed anger at the Biden administration. When asked about his thoughts on Biden’s unexpected trip to Kiev, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway answered, “That was the biggest slap in the face; that tells you right now, he doesn’t care about us.” (The Hill, Feb. 21)
Residents of East Palestine learned that company and government officials lied to them from the very beginning, when they told the public that the water was “safe to drink.” It turned out that a consulting firm handpicked by Norfolk Southern bosses had conducted the studies regarding water safety.
According to a report from the Huffington Post on Feb. 18, “The testing that Ohio authorities relied on to declare the municipal water in East Palestine safe to drink . . . was funded by the railroad operator itself and did not initially comply with federal standards.”
Not only Democrats faced the heat. The studies were done with Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s knowledge and approval. DeWine made his own surprise visit, when he showed up in East Palestine on Feb. 21 for a quick video and photo op of himself drinking water from a home close to the accident location.
Despite town residents being physically sick, DeWine wanted to assure people the water is “safe” for consumption. He was recorded saying that he “would allow his own family to drink the water near the derailment site.” (NewsNation, Feb. 21) Few were convinced, according to the same article.
Fuel for the far right
The poor response by the Biden administration and the Democratic Party regarding the toxic derailment in Ohio has given far-right forces political ammunition. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg finally made a trip to East Palestine on Feb. 23, but many people living in the area say his appearance was too little, too late.
Ultrarightist former President Trump popped up in East Palestine one day before Buttigieg arrived. With typical brazen demagogy, Trump brought thousands of water bottles, bearing his name brand. He took a camera crew with him to a local McDonald’s for a photo-op, in a manner reminiscent of his 2016 pre-election campaign style.
Trump jabbed at the Biden administration for its negligence and inadequate handling of the Ohio disaster. The ex-president kept silent, however, about how in 2017 his administration removed laws requiring railroads to install Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes on trains carrying highly flammable and hazardous materials. (New Republic, Feb. 22) Many experts, including union railroad workers, believe the safer ECP brakes could have prevented the Feb. 3 train wreck.
The federal government has deregulated the railroad industry over the years at the behest of big business interests, such as the Association of American Railroads.
For many years, AAR CEO Edward Hamberger personally lobbied the Federal Railroad Administration to reduce safety standards for proper training, routine inspections and appropriate staffing levels.
It’s telling that Hamberger had openly welcomed Trump’s 2016 election victory by stating, “As a business leader, Mr. Trump understands many of the economic challenges facing this country.” (ttnews.com, Nov. 9, 2016)
Many on the right, including neo-Nazis, have used white-supremacist rhetoric in an attempt to divide affected communities throughout the Ohio Valley. Idavox, a website affiliated with the anti-racist group One People’s Project, which tracks down and confronts hate groups, published an article that exposes some recent visits of white supremacists to East Palestine.
The National Justice Party, led by “Unite the Right” leader Mike Peinovich, ganged up with the notoriously violent American Defense Skinheads to distribute racist literature outside a town hall meeting in East Palestine. The newly formed “Patriot Socialist Front” group also appeared there. This group attended the fascist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Many of the very same figureheads of the political right, who have historically promoted anti-worker, anti-environmental and pro-deregulation policies, are exploiting the Ohio incident to insincerely act as “champions of the people.”
Community organizing counters corporate greed
One popular organization that is stepping up to help the people of East Palestine is River Valley Organizing. It is a multinational, multigendered and multigenerational, socially and environmentally conscious, grassroots group that formed in 2013.
Organizers and activists in RVO have a Facebook group, where they have been posting information for people seeking assistance. They have been organizing water distribution to individuals and families throughout the affected area.
RVO originated and is headquartered in East Palestine’s neighboring town of East Liverpool. The organization provides helpful information on its social media pages, and it has held several well-attended meetings that brought concerned citizens together. In one recorded meeting held Feb. 23, posted on Facebook, an East Palestine resident said, “We are at war with corporate greed, and we need to keep our community safe.”
With the assistance of RVO, community organizers are working with other progressive forces in their quest for answers and solutions. They say they can’t trust state, federal or corporate media officials. And they are learning how powerful railroad bosses still are today and how they even have influence over air and water quality tests – as well as the “medical clinics” that are supposed to provide help.
RVO invited Steven Lester, Science Director of the Center for Health Environment and Justice, to speak about the possible effects of dioxins in the air, water and soil. That meeting in East Palestine had a higher attendance than another meeting that was shown on CNN. (Status Coup News, Feb. 24)
Longtime consumer rights advocate Erin Brockovich spoke at a packed town hall meeting in East Palestine Feb. 24. She captivated the audience’s attention and won applause. Brockovich criticized poor infrastructure on the trains and corporate greed, and she encouraged the community to unite with the rail union “solidarity caucus” Railroad Workers United. (railroadworkersunited.org)
The people of East Palestine are collectively organizing to defend themselves from the lies and attacks by capitalist politicians, officials, bosses and media. So far, community-based organizing has offered more to the people of that town than have the federal and state representatives of both political parties, the corporate media, the fascistic “populist” right or Norfolk Southern and their profit-driven shareholders.