Drive for profit derails lives in Ohio

March 19, 2023

From the March-April 2023 issue of News & Letters

Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., Feb. 6, 2023. Photo: NTSB

Kansas City, Kans.—The Norfolk Southern train that derailed on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, threatening the health and lives of thousands of residents, can’t be called an accident. Not when railroad workers were cut out of negotiating over safety, and not when decisions by the railroad made this and other ecological disasters predictable rather than surprising.


Contained in a glowing report to stockholders on maintaining and increasing the corporate profit margins was a side note that the safety record had dipped in each of the last four years, and another Norfolk Southern train derailed just four days later in Windsor, on the Canadian side of the Detroit River.

The 150-car train that derailed in East Palestine was hauling, among other toxic chemicals, five cars of vinyl chloride. Norfolk Southern made the catastrophe far more hazardous by choosing to vent and burn the vinyl chloride, even from three cars that had survived the derailment intact. They said it was for fear that the cars would explode. The products of combustion include not just hydrogen chloride, a skin irritant, but phosgene, a greater killer of soldiers in the trenches of World War I than mustard gas.

After World War II when my uncle worked as a car repairman in North Kansas City on the Wabash, one of the railroads swallowed up to create today’s Norfolk Southern, rail craft union rules and federal regulations together would have prevented such an absurdly long train. Furthermore, the crew of that era included brakemen and a fireman who might have caught the sparking on the tracks that signaled imminent failure more than 20 miles before the derailment.

Railroad workers fought for and won federal safety regulations after shedding blood on the job or being killed on picket lines. But railroad owners’ pressure for crew reductions and profits over safety led to waves of deregulation under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Just last December Congress forced a contract on workers at the nation’s main freight carriers, giving them no voice on staffing, job conditions or safety.


Residents who had been evacuated right after the toxic spill were told to return to their homes just two days later, with assurances that the air was safe to breathe and the tap water was okay to drink. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine came to East Palestine to drink a swallow of tap water to prove that residents could drink it all day, every day.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had done the same after lead levels in Flint tap water skyrocketed in 2014. DeWine’s photo op did not stop residents from wondering how soon their town would be the next Ohio Valley cancer hot spot.

DeWine at first turned down FEMA aid as unnecessary, then welcomed Trump claiming the feds had vowed to leave East Palestine residents stranded without a dime. Trump “forgot” to take credit for bowing to industry lobbyists in 2018 by withdrawing a key rule before it could be enforced. The rule would have required electronic air brake systems. The EPA order forcing Norfolk Southern to clean up the mess they made is too little, too late for those already poisoned.

—Teamster supporter

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