Rail companies fought against safety measures that could have prevented Ohio disaster


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Poisonous gasses

A Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on February 3 spewed millions of pounds of toxic materials into the environment, killing wildlife, pets, and forcing evacuations.

Five of the cars carried vinyl chloride, a potent carcinogen used in the production of plastic material. While this is bad enough in itself, in order to avoid a potential explosion emergency crews released the vinyl chloride from the tankers and set it aflame (video)—turning the chemical into phosgene and hydrogen chloride. Phosgene is a colorless nonflammable gas so poisonous that it was used extensively as a chemical weapon during World War I.

Phosgene, which smells like moldy hay, is also an irritant but six times more deadly than chlorine gas. Phosgene is also a much stealthier weapon: it’s colorless, and soldiers did not at first know they had received a fatal dose. After a day or two, victims’ lungs would fill with fluid, and they would slowly suffocate in an agonizing death. Although the Germans were the first to use phosgene on the battlefield, it became the primary chemical weapon of the Allies. Phosgene was responsible for 85% of chemical-weapons fatalities during World War I.

  • Other toxic chemicals released by the derailment include (1) ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, which causes irritation of the nose and throat, nervous system depression, headache, and vomiting; (2) ethylhexyl acrylate, a carcinogen that causes burning and irritation of the nose and throat, as well as shortness of breath and coughing; (3) isobutylene, which causes dizziness and drowsiness.

Governor Mike DeWine (R) ordered all residents within a one-mile radius to evacuate before the controlled release and burn. Three days later, the evacuation was lifted after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported air quality readings “consistently showed readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern.”

Around-the-clock testing inside and outside the evacuation zone around the village of East Palestine and a sliver of Pennsylvania showed the air had returned to normal levels that would have been seen before the derailment, said James Justice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Hundreds and hundreds of data points we’ve collected over the time show the air quality is safe,” he said.

Local impacts

Despite the all-clear from authorities, residents are nervous to return—and rightfully so. Every American should remember that the lead contaminants in Flint’s drinking water were detected almost immediately by residents, yet it took two years for officials to attempt to rectify the situation. During that time, authorities denied there was any threat to public health. Now, almost a decade later, virtually every official involved in the crisis has had their criminal charges dropped or dismissed.

If officials are right about the overall air readings being safe to breathe, what about the air and surfaces inside residents’ houses? This is one concern of people returning home, especially those with children:

Hours after being told she could go home for the first time since a train hauling chemicals derailed and later sent up a toxic plume near the Pennsylvania state line, Melissa Henry nervously walked inside her house.

First, she washed her sheets and pillow cases. Then she started throwing out everything left on her kitchen counters. She opened all of her windows too, hoping to air out whatever might have seeped inside while fearful of the air outside too.

“Was that the right thing to do or not? You just don’t know,” she said Thursday. “It was a nightmare, it still is.”

Returning residents may also find their pets sick or deceased:

A certified foxkeeper just outside the evacuation zone has reported one of his foxes died after the burn. “Out of nowhere, he just started coughing really hard, just shut down, and he had liquid diarrhea and just went very fast,” Taylor Holzer told WKBN television based in Youngstown. He said all of his foxes have been sick and lethargic since the train derailment February 3. “This is not a fox acts. He is very weak, limp. His eyes are very watery and weepy,” Holzer said, adding that some of the foxes are pacing in their pens, a sign they are unwell.

“People’s cats are getting sick and dying, and people’s other birds that they have in their house that they weren’t being able to evacuate either. It’s just, it’s not safe for them.”

Widespread impacts

Air pollution is the most obviously visible impact of the derailment and subsequent burn, but water pollution is just as dangerous. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated that the release of toxic chemicals killed thousands of fish across over 7 miles of streams in East Palestine. And, as we all know, water doesn’t stay in one spot. The Ohio River Basin—already designated the most toxic watershed in the nation due to chemical and fossil fuel production across Appalachia—stretches across 14 states and covers a region of about 204,000 square miles. While officials have touted the safe air quality levels, they have not been able to provide similar assurances for water quality:

Linda Murphy, who lives about three miles from the site of the train derailment, confirmed to News 5 last week that she saw dead fish floating in several locations on Leslie Run. She says her family isn’t touching the well she uses for water on her property until they get assurances that it’s safe.

“That’s what we bathe in, that’s what we drink, that’s what we cook with and that’s what I also give to my animals, so it’s a major concern and they could not reassure me the water was safe to drink. They didn’t say it wasn’t and absolutely refrained from saying that it was,” Murphy said.

Arresting reporters

Making things worse, Ohio police officers arrested a reporter broadcasting from Gov. DeWine’s press conference about the derailment, stoking rumors that the government is trying to somehow cover up the full extent of the disaster. NewsNation correspondent Evan Lambert was arrested on charges of criminal trespassing and resisting arrest after being told to keep quiet in the middle of a live report. Body camera footage shows National Guard adjutant general Maj. Gen. John Harris pushing Lambert before the reporter is placed on the ground, handcuffed, and removed from the building.

Ignored warnings and corrupt companies

The disastrous derailment comes just weeks after the President and Congress shut down a potential national railroad strike, siding with rail companies over railway workers who warned of dangerous industry-wide practices.

“The Palestine wreck is the tip of the iceberg and a red flag,” said [Ron Kaminkow, an Amtrak locomotive engineer and former Norfolk Southern freight engineer], who is secretary for the Railroad Workers United, a non-profit labor group that coordinates with the nation’s rail unions. “If something is not done, then it’s going to get worse, and the next derailment could be cataclysmic.”

The major rail companies have all drastically cut workers in recent years, part of an effort to slash costs and boost profits. Norfolk Southern, responsible for the Ohio derailment, let more than 3,500 employees go in 2019 alone.

More than 20,000 rail workers have lost their jobs in the past year [2019], the biggest layoffs in rail since the Great Recession and a nearly 10 percent decline in rail employment, according to Labor Department data through November…The rail industry, which once employed more than a million Americans, fell below 200,000 employees in 2019, the first time that has happened since the Labor Department started keeping track of railroad employment in the 1940s…

“We fundamentally changed the way we operate over the last 2½ years,” said Bryan Tucker, vice president of communications at CSX. “It’s a different way of running a railroad.”

A Norfolk Southern spokeswoman said the company was focused on increasing efficiency and profitable growth and that “as our business changes, so too do our personnel needs.” Union Pacific stressed the environmental benefits of moving goods by rail instead of truck.

While laying off thousands of workers, Norfolk Southern spent billions on stock buybacks and millions on executive salary increases.

The company simultaneously fought off both a shareholder proposal to “assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation” and a proposed federal regulation that would have tightened safety guidelines for trains carrying hazardous materials.

The sequence of events began a decade ago in the wake of a major uptick in derailments of trains carrying crude oil and hazardous chemicals, including a New Jersey train crash that leaked the same toxic chemical as in Ohio.

In response, the Obama administration in 2014 proposed improving safety regulations for trains carrying petroleum and other hazardous materials. However, after industry pressure, the final measure ended up narrowly focused on the transport of crude oil and exempting trains carrying many other combustible materials, including the chemical involved in this weekend’s disaster.

Then came 2017: After rail industry donors delivered more than $6 million to GOP campaigns, the Trump administration — backed by rail lobbyists and Senate Republicans — rescinded part of that rule aimed at making better braking systems widespread on the nation’s rails.

Rail company and chemical company lobbyists aggressively pushed back on safety regulations that could have potentially prevented the Norfolk Southern train from derailing in Ohio. Preliminary information, including video evidence, suggests that the train traveled at least 20 miles with a malfunctioning axle. Shortly before the accident, the train crew had gotten an alert to the issue and started to apply the brakes, however, it can take over a mile for a train of that length to fully stop…unless it has Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes.

Here’s where the corruption and malfeasance enters the picture: Norfolk Southern and other rail companies successfully lobbied against requiring ECP brakes on all trains, even those carrying hazardous chemicals:

Then came 2017: After rail industry donors delivered more than $6 million to GOP campaigns, the Trump administration — backed by rail lobbyists and Senate Republicans — rescinded part of that rule aimed at making better braking systems widespread on the nation’s rails.

Specifically, regulators killed provisions requiring rail cars carrying hazardous flammable materials to be equipped with electronic braking systems to stop trains more quickly than conventional air brakes. Norfolk Southern had previously touted the new technology — known as Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes — for its “potential to reduce train stopping distances by as much as 60 percent over conventional air brake systems.”

But the company’s lobby group nonetheless pressed for the rule’s repeal, telling regulators that it would “impose tremendous costs without providing offsetting safety benefits.” […]

“Would ECP brakes have reduced the severity of this accident? Yes,” Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), told The Lever.

Political donations

Finally, let’s look at why railroad companies have been allowed to get away with a consistent pattern of over 1,700 train derailments per year. The answer is political money. In 2022 alone, Norfolk Southern made $1,332,689 in contributions and spent $1.8 billion in lobbying lawmakers and regulators. The entire rail industry donated $3.7 million to politicians in 2020, the majority going to Republican candidates.

In contrast, Norfolk Southern (worth $55 billion) is giving East Palestine just $25,000 to clean up the town they polluted.

The political money isn’t likely to slow down, as rail companies seek to expand their network. Days after the Ohio derailment, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern proposed a $27 billion merger that would increase the transport of hazardous material like fossil fuels across America. According to an environmental impact statement, a total of nearly 13 “releases” of hazardous materials could occur every year along any point of the rail line.

If it goes through, it would create the first direct route from Canada’s bitumen oil sands mines in Alberta to heavy crude refineries in Port Arthur, an industrial city on the Texas coast. “We fully expect that the combination of the two railroads will only strengthen their support for this new source of bitumen,” the vice-president of USD Group, a Texas-based midstream company, told a Canadian newspaper last year.

Local environmentalists say the increase in fossil fuel refining along the Gulf coast will impact their health – and increase carbon emissions. It also could put residents like Williams at risk of a hazardous oil spill. “I live close enough to the track that if there is a derailment, and there is hazardous materials, it’s going to impact me directly,” she said. “Not to mention all of the hundreds of other residents that these lines are on – it’s pretty alarming.”