On February 3, 2023 a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, OH including five cars carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, a highly flammable, toxic material used in the manufacture of plastic products. Norfolk Southern, with approval from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, released the chemical into a trench and set it on fire in what was said to be an effort to avoid a larger catastrophe.
It’s hard to imagine a larger catastrophe than what the entire ecosystem of East Palestine and the surrounding area are experiencing. The contamination of soil, water, and air from the purposeful release of toxic chemicals has immediate and long-term health effects for people and wildlife. Within the first few days there were already reports of thousands of dead fish along with other reports of sick or dead animals.
After a similar vinyl chloride spill in Paulsboro, NJ in 2012, over 100 residents required hospital treatment, 25 ended up in the emergency room, and residents were still reporting symptoms two years later. Additionally, exposure to vinyl chloride causes liver, lung, and other cancers. Now that Norfolk Southern has covered the region in this toxic chemical, it is only a matter of time before East Palestine residents start to suffer from the same long-term effects. To make matters worse, the burning of this chemical almost certainly created large amounts of dioxin, another toxic carcinogen. Consistent exposure over 4.8 parts per trillion (ppt) is considered dangerous. In April, the EPA already reported surrounding areas had exceeded this threshold. Some areas had levels as high as 100 ppt. According to them, they do not need to begin removal management. In familiar fashion, their policy is not to bother unless levels are 480 ppt or greater, 100x worse than what’s considered dangerous.
The long-term impacts to the ecosystem could be extensive as well. Thousands of animals have already died from the contamination. Videos taken by returning residents show that creek and river beds are still full of chemicals, which create thick films over the water after the sediment is disturbed. These chemicals are likely to remain in the ecosystem, some indefinitely, where they will continue to harm plants and wildlife.
In 2016 Railroads adopted a policy called “Precision Scheduled Railroading” or PSR in an effort to streamline operations to maximize profitability. In practice it means fewer employees, longer trains, heavier cargo, less maintenance, and a greater propensity for unsafe conditions to occur. Safety inspectors who used to average three minutes per freight car are now pushed to do the same work in one minute. PSR enables railroad shareholders to extract more wealth by pushing workers and equipment to do more with less. While this system is profitable for railroad corporations, the blatant disregard for safety paved the way for the disaster in East Palestine. To the workers in this industry, this situation was inevitable. Railroad workers and unions have been warning us about the dangers of PSR for years. Putting these strains on workers makes it impossible to maintain safety. If the government, corporations, and bourgeois media spent more time promoting rather than suppressing working-class voices, this could have been avoided.
De-regulation of the railroad industry also played a major role in the derailment. Many are now aware that under the Obama administration, the Department of Transportation issued a rule requiring high-hazard cargo trains to be equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes. Although precision scheduled railroading is what set the stage for the derailment, an electronic braking system would have limited its severity. Unfortunately, the rule was scrapped during the Trump administration because it would have cut into corporate profits too much, and the Biden administration has not moved to restore it. Furthermore, under current regulations, the train in question would never have been considered high-hazard cargo, meaning Norfolk Southern would not have been required to use an electronic braking system if the rule were in place. Time and time again our government chooses to endanger American lives by giving regulatory gifts to its corporate donors. We demand that the Biden administration do what is right for its citizens. It must tighten regulations on the railroad industry by forcing companies to adhere to stricter safety standards.
Though residents of East Palestine were told to return to their homes, it is clear that the cleanup is not complete. Those who returned continue to experience symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic pollution such as skin rashes and general illness. This is an expected outcome of leaving those responsible for the disaster, Norfolk Southern, in charge of the cleanup. We cannot expect more than the bare minimum when that is the most profitable option. The government must be in charge of the clean-up, and Norfolk Southern must be forced to pay the costs. As of March 30th, the Department of Justice is suing Norfolk Southern to ensure that they pay for the cleanup. This is not enough. In addition to suing Norfolk Southern, Congress must pass legislation limiting precision scheduled railroading, and forcing railroad companies to modernize their equipment. The government must not use public funds to ease the burden on corporations either. The costs of change must come from shareholder pockets.
The gross negligence that led to this disaster was not unique to Norfolk Southern, it is widespread due to the fact that we live in a capitalist society. A system based on the accumulation of wealth for a small minority cannot be expected to do what is best for the general population. It will always be cheaper to pay for minimal cleanup than it will be to run the industry safely. Stopping and preventing these crises ultimately rests on the transition to socialism. Under socialism, the profit motive will no longer stand in the way of safety and modernization. When the railroads are centralized and under the control of the people, only then will proper safety measures become the norm.
The Environmental Commission of the PCUSA condemns the actions of Norfolk Southern and governmental authorities in East Palestine. The toxic effects of an uncontrolled burning of hazardous chemicals in a residential area will linger for decades. This was an avoidable catastrophe, forced on a population to keep the trains running and the money flowing. Only the implementation of Socialism can prevent similar disasters from occurring in the future.
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