Behind “100% Preventable” Rail Disaster: Anti-worker Deregulation, Corporate greed

IN THE SMALL town of East Palestine, Ohio, the catastrophic February 3 rail derailment highlights failures of safety regulations, indifference to residents, and anti-labor bias against those who do the work.

Initially the media reported it as an accidental derailment, which happens on average every other day, and was not a health risk. But townspeople have reported health problems for a month.

The Washington Post did report: “The National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Jennifer Homendy held a briefing on the board’s initial findings. Calling the derailment ‘100 percent preventable’ …”

It soon became clear that the train with 150 rail cars had 38 cars derailed, including 11 tankers containing poisonous hazardous materials that immediately ignited, according to the preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Twelve other cars were damaged after fires erupted. A wheel-bearing failure was cited as the cause of the crash.

Norfolk Southern, one of the country’s largest carriers, said little at first. As locals in a community of 4700 began reporting toxic smells, polluted water and rashes, the company said there was nothing to worry about — but refused to attend a public meeting, claiming fear for their lives.

Ohio Republican Governor Mike DeWine visited and assured people things would be taken care of. He activated the state’s National Guard on February 5 to help in the cleanup. In addition, a shelter-in-place order was issued, and an evacuation order for the area within a mile radius of the crash.

DeWine and Democratic Pennsylvania Governor, Josh Shapiro, met with Norfolk Southern executives who suggested a “controlled burn off” of the toxins as the safest procedure. Otherwise, they warned, a massive explosion could occur.

These toxins in the form of a highly inflatable gas, vinyl chloride, under pressure in tank cars could explode as a huge bomb that would hit the community.

“Controlled” Burn and Deadly Dioxins

On February 6, the controlled burn occurred, with a huge column of thick black smoke which led to complaints of foul air and drinking water. The spill had already gone into 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 EPA warned that the burning of vinyl chloride would produce highly toxic dioxins, and instructed the company to test for these poisons.

Dioxins are environmental pollutants. They belong to the so-called “dirty dozen” — a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). With their highly toxic potential, experiments have shown they affect a number of organs and systems.

Once dioxins enter the body, they last a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored. Their half-life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years.

Short-term exposure of humans 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, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions.

Chronic exposure of animals to dioxins has resulted in several types of cancer. Based on animal data and on human epidemiology data, one dioxin was classified as a “known human carcinogen.”

Public Meeting Outrage

The New York Times reported, “The increased testing mandate came ahead of meeting at East Palestine High School [that evening] that was expected to be the largest public confrontation yet between the community and officials from Norfolk Southern, the train operator ….

“Last month, the EPA issued an order that not only demanded that the company pay for all cleanup associated with the disaster, but also required the company to ‘attend and participate in public meetings’ at EPA’s request — including the meeting on March 4.

“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.”

Indeed, it is inconceivable that the EPA and Northern 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 been warning about catastrophes for decades.

The union representing track maintenance workers said that in the month after the derailment workers continued to experience health problems.

Rail workers have complained about safety for years. As reported by The Guardian (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,’ said the manager. ‘We have 56 other people who are not bad-ordering stuff out there. You’re definitely not going to get in trouble for it.’

“Griffin said: ‘He refused to bad-order [mark for repair] cars for bad wheel bearings. My boss took issue with it because it increased our dwell time. When that happened, corporate offices would start berating management to release the cars.’

“Griffin also claimed she and other workers did not receive any formal training to inspect and repair railcars, and were left to learn from an older worker and figure the rest out from American Association of Railroads and Federal Railroad Administration handbooks. Griffin suggested all major railroad carriers operate similarly.

“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.

“She said: “The regulation at the time stated that a wheel bearing was bad when it had ‘visible seepage.’ But that was very vague, and the bosses used that vagueness to their advantage. For me, it was whenever oil was visible on the bearing. For my bosses, they wanted actual droplets and proof it would leak on the ground.”

History of Derailments

The Guardian (February 25) also detailed how common the East Palestine crash and derailments are in the United States. Headlined, “Revealed: the US is averaging one chemical accident every two days,” it explained:

“Such accidents are happening with striking regularity. A Guardian analysis of data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by non-profit groups that track chemical accidents in the US shows that accidental releases – be they through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills – are happening consistently across the country… “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.”

Bipartisan Deregulation

It is important to recognize that the deregulation of transportation, including the rail carriers, was bipartisan. The key legal changes occurred in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, signed two Acts. 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. President Carter’s signing statement predicted gains for consumers, shippers, and the trucking industry.

“President Carter also signed the Staggers Rail Act in 1980. The Staggers Act 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 1981 and 1996, real rail revenue per ton-mile fell by nearly 50 percent. At least one-third of this rate reduction can be attributed to the Staggers Act. Deregulated rates saved shippers up to $7 billion annually in 1987.

“Rates dropped because the Staggers Act gave railroads greater flexibility to cut costs and improve productivity. Between 1980 and 1996, total operating expenses of the largest, class one railroads fell by half.

“By the late 1990s, the miles of class I 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 coronavirus 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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics some 40,000 jobs were cut since 2018.

What Next?

Carrying deadly toxins is widely done by rail and truck. What chemicals are in the tank rail cars are never identified until a major derailment and public outcry. The companies do not inform local officials. The mayor of East Palestine was unaware of the specific toxins in the train that derailed.

The ongoing cleanup in Ohio has revealed plans by Norfolk Southern and state to move the dangerous waste water to poor communities in Houston, Detroit and other cities. Activists have long fought against this example of environmental racism.

Not surprisingly on February 26, the Environmental Protection Agency allowed Norfolk Southern to resume this transportation of hazardous materials from the crash site to the cities mentioned.

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, clean up the disasters and empowering their unions to stop the bosses from putting profits ahead of human life.