In East Palestine, after the evacuation came the anger. For the past two weeks, the small town on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border has been at the epicenter of what could become a catastrophic environmental disaster, following the derailment of a rail convoy earlier this month. The accident led to a fire and the release of a long list of poisonous substances including vinyl chloride, diethylene glycol, acrylic acid, isobutene, butylacrylate and phosgene.
To give an idea of the level of toxicity, the latter substance was originally used as a chemical weapon in World War I, and, like the others, is now used as an industrial precursor in the manufacture of plastics and other materials. After the accident of the train owned by Norfolk Southern, the authorities let the substances spill out of the cars on purpose to prevent a potentially catastrophic explosion.
However, the operation ended up spewing dense toxic clouds over the whole region between Pittsburgh and Youngstown, in the heart of the industrial hinterland, with small, predominantly working-class towns. The population was subjected to emergency evacuation for several days before being allowed back into their homes. But the return has not been reassuring, with many residents complaining for days of pains, stomach aches, migraines and reporting strong chemical odors.
The EPA, the environmental authority, admitted to the presence of odors but said they had not detected “any levels of health concern.” These statements did nothing to reassure citizens who are reporting illnesses and deaths among their pets and livestock, including 5,000 dead fish in the nearby creek, which might poison the groundwater. Meanwhile, the extent of the contamination that has been absorbed by the soil remains unknown.
To make matters worse, the private rail conglomerate responsible for the accident has also embarked on a predictable public relations strategy to downplay the dangers, following a familiar plan of half-truths and expansive gray areas designed to avoid any possible criminal liability. On Tuesday, residents convened a meeting at the local high school gymnasium where frustrations boiled over, especially as the Norfolk Southern representatives did not attend.
“They don’t want us to know anything,” one resident told the BBC. “They have something to hide. You don’t back out of questions if you know how to answer them,” added another person who lives in the area.
Erin Brockovich also spoke out on the situation. The activist who specializes in environmental and public health mobilizations against large industrial interests said: “If you feel unsafe, then please – get out of harm’s way. If you feel unsafe, stay sheltered in place. If you’re questioning if it’s all clear, and you think it isn’t, listen to that voice.”
Meanwhile, the scandal is becoming a national political issue. Republican Governor Mike DeWine took two weeks to accept federal aid and said he was “not seeing” any problem with people returning, only to later advise them to “drink bottled water.” At the same time, there is a wave of conspiracist speculation on social media exploited by the right wing, which has shed copious crocodile tears over insufficient regulations, seeing a possible line of attack against the government – while forgetting, of course, the deregulation under Trump which took aim at environmental and safety regulations, at the behest of big business.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the rising star and the most “Kennedy-like” of Biden’s cabinet, didn’t do a very commendable job either in terms of promptness or transparency, still struggling to set up a powerful investigation to ascertain the responsibility for an event that seems to be increasingly paradigmatic of a disaster capitalism with multiple co-responsibilities.
Robert Reich, former Interior Secretary, pointed to the role of the greed of the railroad company, which first spent billions on lobbyists to avoid the imposition of government safety regulations on its operations and is now imposing the cost of its negligence on the helpless public. In particular, Norfolk Southern recently managed to avoid the proposed modernization of its braking systems. That episode was part of the overall profit-maximizing strategy that has seen the eight major railroad companies engaged in a campaign of layoffs.
In December, Biden had intervened to force a new contract and avoid a labor strike. In that dispute, unions representing 115,000 rail workers also demanded two-person crews and the right to sick days off. These demands were not granted in the agreement signed by Biden for the purpose of “avoiding disruption” to a vital supply chain for the country.
“The job losses that we’ve seen and heard about over the last four to five years come at a price. A lot of times that price is public safety,” a railroad unionist told The Nation. “I feel the railroad looks at these derailments as the cost of doing business while still coming out ahead.”
“The Palestine wreck is the tip of the iceberg and a red flag,” Ron Kaminkow, secretary of Railroad Workers United, told The Guardian. “If something is not done, then it’s going to get worse, and the next derailment could be cataclysmic.”
Meanwhile, the poisoning of East Palestine could join the ranks of the country’s major industrial accidents, and we are perhaps witnessing only the beginning of a painful and toxic political and criminal process. Norfolk Southern claimed that the fact that its representatives refused to attend the town meeting was justified by a risk to the physical safety. Such a scenario has, if anything, become more likely as a result of that decision.