Discover more from Discourse Blog
Who's To Blame For the Disaster in Ohio?
The railway is only part of the problem.
After a tragedy, there is an urge to find a culprit. The world very often does not work so neatly. Terrible things happen by chance or fate or through honest and well-intentioned human error every day. Others are clear-cut: direct actions of violence or harm inflicted by one party upon another. Everything else is kind of a mess, a combination of violence and stupidity and structural inequity that largely ends up fucking over the same groups of people over and over again.
But you know all this. The problem is capitalism, an economic system which prioritizes the accumulation of money over everything else. This is a true statement but in many cases not a particularly persuasive one, I think, as using the economic system we all live under as the culprit for all the things that go wrong is so broad that it only really resonates with people who already don’t like capitalism all that much.
What’s more useful is identifying exactly how capitalism screwed something up so bad. We have to find some more specific culprits, even in situations where things are kind of a mess. For instance, earlier this month, a train derailed outside of the town of East Palestine, Ohio, spilling its cargo of toxic chemicals into the surrounding air and ground and water. The train was roughly 150-200 cars long, twenty of which were loaded with a “toxic soup” of chemicals like vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monbutyl. Those names mean little to me and most people, but the end result was that authorities decided to burn off much of the leaking vinyl chloride so that it would not explode and send shrapnel into the surrounding town. When you burn vinyl chloride it separates into hydrogen chloride and phosgene which are both independently dangerous. Eleven of the 20 cars carrying hazardous materials derailed. The train was not categorized as a high-hazardous materials train because of federal regulations that say there were enough non-hazardous cars to, I guess, outweigh the hazardous ones, which seems like so stupid of a system that even Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine criticized it.
“The only way I can describe it is the like the doors of hell were open,” Chief Steve Szekely of Mahoning County Hazmat, one of the first agencies on the scene, told local news. “I mean, it was hot and the flames were shooting up into the air at least 100 feet. We didn’t know what chemicals there were. But once on the scene, we can smell. You can smell it in the air that there was something.” WKBN reports that there was no cargo manifest available to first responders.
For a few days, this was pretty much all the news we got. Big plume of smoke, fiery crash, weird stuff in the air. Local authorities downplayed it. Ohio Senator JD Vance spent ten days basically pretending it didn’t exist. Then the stories started to come out. From the New Republic’s excellent reporting:
Amanda Greathouse, who resides near the crash site, evacuated about one hour after the incident. She only returned home on February 10, a full week later, to retrieve personal effects like bank and ID cards. Even then, as she and her family walked through the home donning N-95 masks and gloves, an ominous odor pervaded. After leaving, her eyes burned and itched, her throat was sore, and she had a rash; her husband and both her sisters had migraines.
The next day, the family went to Norfolk Southern’s community family assistance center to obtain the $1,000 inconvenience check. After a four-hour wait, Greathouse was informed they needed more documents. The family was forced to return to their home again to retrieve additional documents, and left with renewed symptoms.
Taylor Holzer, an animal caretaker, lost one of his foxes. Others are in poor condition with faces swollen, stomachs upset, and eyes watering. Holzer’s dog, who hadn’t returned home until after the evacuation order was lifted, has begun coughing and gagging. “He will go into coughing fits so hard his front legs bow and he looks so uncomfortable,” Holzer said.
After the derailment, Andrea Belden noticed her two-year-old cat Leo lying motionless, heart racing and breathing labored. He remained that way overnight. Leo was found to have congestive heart failure. Fluid filled around his heart and lungs, and his liver enzymes shot up 690 percent higher than normal levels. Medication wasn’t working. He seldom moved, ate or drank, or went to the bathroom. To continue treatment, Belden would’ve had to come up with up to $18,000. She sought help from Norfolk Southern, with a letter from the vet explaining Leo’s issues likely to be connected to the vinyl chloride. The company said they would not pay for it now, but would possibly entertain it in the future. Belden couldn’t afford to continue the treatment. Norfolk Southern’s delay forced her to make an impossible decision. Leo was put to sleep. Belden still owed $9,678.23 for the treatment Leo received.
The stories go on. Chicken coops filled with dead birds, coughing babies, medical bills stacking up, and no reimbursements from Norfolk Southern, which claims it has established a $1 million charitable fund available to victims of the spill, while offering others a $1,000 “inconvenience fee” that some local lawyers think may be a way to buy off victims’ rights to future restitution. (Norfolk Southern’s revenue in 2022 was $12.745 billion.)
So this is our culprit, right? In the most immediate terms, yes. Norfolk Southern ran a train of hazardous chemicals through a small town just feet from peoples’ homes and is now doing everything it can to protect its bottom line once everything literally blew up.
But one company fucking over a small town doesn’t tell the full story that we want, or give us the ultimate culprit. For that you have to go further.
Is the culprit Pete Buttigieg, who has so far refused or failed to re-institute an Obama-era braking regulation that was discarded during the Trump administration? The Lever reports:
Amid the lobbying blitz against stronger transportation safety regulations, Norfolk Southern paid executives millions and spent billions on stock buybacks — all while the company shed thousands of employees despite warnings that understaffing is intensifying safety risks. Norfolk Southern officials also fought off a shareholder initiative that could have required company executives to “assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation.”
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.
This is long, I know. We are getting into the weeds. But by now I hope you’re seeing how difficult assigning blame is. The problems are systemic. The companies directly to blame have spent decades finding allies and building relationships in the government—creating the system that allows them to maximize profits and pave over safety concerns.
The culprit for this disaster is everyone who helped the rail companies do so, and they will remain the culprits the next time a train goes off the rails, regardless of the company running it. For what it’s worth, the people on the front lines understand this. Rail Workers United, a cross-union railroad reform group, wrote a scathing assessment of the East Palestine derailment:
At this time, the immediate cause of the wreck appears to have been a 19th century style mechanical failure of the axle on one of the cars – an overheated bearing - leading to derailment and then jackknifing tumbling cars. There is no way in the 21st century, save from a combination of incompetence and disregard to public safety, that such a defect should still be threatening our communities.
We have solutions to this, but the system exists to keep them out. The most important number isn’t the size of the train or the weight of the chemicals that spilled or the number of people impacted. It’s that $12.745 billion. Everyone who makes that number go up should be found guilty.