Did you know that more than 100 million marine animals die yearly from mismanaged waste dumped into our oceans? From 205 million gallon oil spills to untreated sewage, human activity is responsible for our marine ecosystem’s degradation. The United States alone averages about one chemical accident every two days. In the first seven weeks of 2023 alone, the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters recorded more than 30 incidents! Chemical disasters are very common, still, none gained more recent notoriety than the Ohio Train Derailment.
In February 2023, a train operated by Norfolk Southern (NS) derailed, carrying an array of highly volatile chemicals into the air, water and soil of East Palestine, Ohio. With 20,200 employees, NS is North America’s fifth largest railway company. NS maintains and operates 21,300 miles of railroad across 22 eastern states and D.C.
On Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, about fifty NS freight train cars derailed in flames in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio. Shortly after the derailment, several cars caught fire, releasing dozens of harmful chemicals into the air, water and soil. Residents within one mile of the derailment were quickly evacuated. NS also promised $1,000 “inconvenience checks” to those living in the evacuation zone. Twenty derailed cars carried hazardous materials.
One of the twenty hazardous materials included volatile, colorless gas vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is commonly used in plastic production, with short-term exposure causing dizziness and migraines. As a known carcinogen, chronic exposure to vinyl chloride can cause a rare liver cancer, angiosarcoma. When burned, vinyl chloride decomposes into hydrogen chloride, which corrodes any human tissue with which it comes in contact.
East Palestine residents reported trouble breathing and migraines, with some experiencing seizures. Independent organizations have reported high levels of volatile compounds are lingering in residential areas. In stark contrast, joint tests conducted by Norfolk Southern and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have routinely come up clean. East Palestine residents are rightfully anxious to return to their homes and workplaces, fighting to ration their inconvenience checks to their absolute limits.
The following Monday, Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern conducted a controlled burn where they released plumes of smoke to prevent the highly flammable vinyl chloride from exploding. The EPA ordered NS to clean up all resulting contamination and pay all costs. Within the next week, an estimated 7.5 miles of river water became saturated with vinyl chloride, resulting in a massive fish kill of over 5,000 freshwater fish.
But, it is not air and water pollution that scientists are afraid of. Rather, it is soil pollution that significantly concerns public health and safety. Most of the Ohio train compounds evaporate within a couple of days when exposed to air and water. Experts cannot predict how this environmental cataclysm will affect us in the coming years. You can find a comprehensive timeline of the derailment here, provided by ABC News.
Labor unions speculate precision scheduled railroading (PSR) is a major cause of the Ohio derailment catastrophe. Norfolk Southern adopted PSR in 2019, promising efficient freight movement and simpler routing networks. Rail workers, however, describe PSR as a “slash-and-burn” of expenses and headcount, resulting in massive layouts. Former NS engineer, Scott Wilcox, told VICE News that before PSR workers were given 10 minutes to inspect each train car for problems. Wilcox continued, explaining how NS slashed inspection time to a startling 30 seconds to save on labor costs. Safety was no longer their priority, and there was increased pressure to deliver products and cut margins.
This dedication to profit endangers our working class and puts thousands of lives at risk. Corporate greed is a terrifying beast, and unions are vital to mitigating damage. America has an extensive history of union busting, and no industry is more notorious than the railroad industry. We cannot truly know if precision railroading caused the Ohio train derailment; but is it that far of a leap to assume its implementation plays a role? I implore you to explore this history on your own and make connections between anti-union policies, the health of American citizens and environmental degradation.
Originally Published 3/9/23