Jeffrey St Clair: Train in Vain

Joe Biden’s administration holds a great deal of culpability for the Ohio train disaster.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn).

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Photo: NTSB

AT nearly 9 o’clock on the night of February 3rd, a Norfolk Southern freight train jumped the tracks as it was passing through the eastern Ohio town of East Palestine. More than 50 of the train’s 141 cars tumbled off the rails into a smoking jumble. Like most freight trains these days, it was hauling a load of toxic cargo. At least 20 of the derailed cars carried hazardous chemicals, five of them harboring highly poisonous vinyl chloride, a carcinogen used in the manufacture of plastics.

The train had left the St. Louis terminal yard earlier that day bound for Norfolk Southern’s Conway Yard in Pennsylvania, passing through cities, towns and fields, crossing creeks and rivers, rumbling by churches, schools and parks. The derailment was the fourteenth of the young year. Not bad by the standards of the US railroad industry, which has averaged 1700 derailments a year since 1977. But plenty bad enough for the 5,000 people of East Palestine and everyone living downstream or downwind from the crash site.

Two days after the wreck, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report saying that the crash was likely caused by a mechanical issue involving the axel on one of the railcars, which had been seen throwing sparks for a least 20 miles before the train entered East Palestine. That may well have been an issue, but it was far from the only one.

For starters, despite carrying at least five toxic chemicals (vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene) the Norfolk Southern train was not classified as “highly hazardous.” In fact, the first responders to the crash had little idea what kind of chemicals they were dealing with, most of which weren’t included on the train’s manifest.

The train itself was not fitted with electronically-controlled pneumatic brakes, a feature which many railroad safety experts say may have prevented, or at the very least, lessened the severity of the derailment. In the grand scheme of things, these brakes are not that expensive and could surely be written off on the railroad company’s taxes, assuming they pay any. (Norfolk Southern just reported $4.8 billion in profits for 2022, a record year.) But the railroad industry had been griping about regulatory over-reach since the Obama administration made the brakes mandatory on any trains carrying hazardous materials. None of the companies complained more shrilly than Norfolk Southern. The company soon found a sympathetic ear in the Trump administration, which rescinded the regulation less than a year after taking office.

So, why hasn’t the Biden administration reinstated the regulation, as Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley has repeatedly urged? It’s been two years. According to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, his hands are tied. “We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation,” Buttigieg tweeted this week. This is ludicrous. All that really constrained him was a 2015 law requiring a “cost-benefit analysis” of new regulations, the costs and benefits of which should be clear to everyone now.

But that was never the Biden administration’s intentions. As the Lever reported this week, Buttigieg’s department is currently working on a new rule that would further weaken train braking requirements. The responsibility for wreck is as much on Biden’s hands as Trump’s. The Department of Transportation’s crash statistics back this up. While derailments declined under Obama’s term, they’ve remained steady under Trump and Biden: 1204 in 2019, 1013 in 2020, 1020 in 2021 and 1044 in 2022. Both administrations weren’t just negligent. They were complicit.  (The Biden Justice Department actually filed a brief siding with Norfolk Southern against a suit brought by a sick railroad worker. The case is now pending before the Supreme Court and could end up shielding the company from future litigation, including any claims brought by the victims of the East Palestine disaster.)

The morning after the derailment, a poisonous steam of liquid was spotted draining into two nearby creeks, Sulfur Run and Leslie Run. Meanwhile, the fires from the crash continued to burn for the next two days, spewing toxic plumes of butyl acrylate into the air.

On February 5th, the temperature inside the cars holding 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride began to spike so precipitously that the EPA feared it might explode, a toxic bomb hurling poison gas and shrapnel across the small Ohio town. The Ohio National Guard was summoned to help evacuate residents living within a square mile of the wreckage.

The following day Norfolk Southern crews initiated what they called “a controlled release” of the five cars containing vinyl chloride. They “released” the carcinogenic gas by setting it on fire, turning the wreckage into an open burn pit. It’s unclear how much the rail company consulted with the EPA before making this fateful decision, but soon after the fire started a black mushroom cloud of smoke, ash and debris rose over the town and hovered there for the next few days. The air tested positive for phosgene, hydrogen chloride, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and particulate matter for at least the next 72 hours.

Those controlled releases were defended by state officials and Norfolk Southern PR flacks as a safe way to disperse highly toxic chemicals, as if they were ignorant of the concepts of bioaccumulation and cumulative effects. They wanted the cars off the tracks, so they could start moving freight again.

But the long-term health consequences could be dire. “In addition to vinyl chloride several of the other substances on the train could form dangerous compounds when burned such as dioxin,” said Peter DeCarlo, a professor at Johns Hopkins. “That, as an atmospheric chemist, is something I would want to steer very, very, very clear of.”

And then animals started to die. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said that at least 3,500 fish had been killed in a 7.5 mile stretch of local streams. Local residents reported dead pets and farm animals. “My chickens were perfectly fine before, and as soon as they started the burn, my chickens slowed down and they died,” said Amanda Breshears, who lives in North Lima, ten miles away from the crash site. “If it can do this to chickens in one night, imagine what it’s going to do to us in 20 years?”

People began to suffer headaches and nausea. Their skin began to break out in rashes. Their kids began to feel sick. In the words of a hazardous materials expert Sil Caggiano, “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”

As the black cloud of toxic smoke continued to wreath East Palestine, the state of Ohio convened a press conference in the local school gymnasium. It didn’t go well. Eventually, John Harris, the Ohio Adjutant General, lost his cool and charged at reporter for NewsNation named Evan Lambert Harris shoved Lambert in the chest, but it was Lambert, not the General, who ended up getting arrested and charged with criminal trespass (at a public building), disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. (The charges were dismissed earlier this week.)

I assumed that the Adjutant General was in charge of the state’s National Guard. He is. But Major General Harris also has a wider portfolio which includes his position as head of the Ohio Naval Militia. The what? It’s been a few years since rebel gunboats were marauding Ohio River towns. But with these maritime duties, you’d think the General would have down a better job at guarding Ohio’s rivers from poison gasses and chemicals. Two weeks after the crash an ominous sheen of toxic chemicals can still be seen floating down the Ohio River at a steady one mile an hour.

“The problem is that exposure and cancer onset take years—long after the initial exposure to the toxic chemicals happened,” said epidemiologist Erich Feigl-Ding. “By then the original politicians and insurance companies are long gone. But the health risks persist. That’s how public health always gets screwed.”

This week Oregon was hit by its own toxic derailment, when a train near the big Georgia-Pacific mill in the coastal town of Toledo slipped off the rails, spilling more than 2,200 gallons of diesel fuel into Depot Slough, a tributary of the Yaquina River, one of the state’s premier salmon streams. You get the feeling they just don’t care. Biden the strikebreaker certainly doesn’t.

Politicians usually rush to the scenes of natural disasters to get photo-ops with the displaced. If they’d show up at environmental calamities while the air is still black, they might be more inclined to do something. But Biden is moving even more lethargically on the Great Toxic Derailment Event than Obama did during the poisoning of Flint, where some will recall the Minister of Hope finally showed up to take a performative quaff of water in front of the cameras. (Who knows its source. Flint still doesn’t have safe drinking water.)  Railroad Joe hasn’t even taken a single breath of East Palestine’s air. It must be even worse than we think.

Perhaps the only way East Palestine will ever get some relief is to change the town’s name.

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