The Accident and Aftermath
On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying 20 cars of hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, Ohio. Officials subsequently carried out a “controlled burn,” which sent toxic smoke billowing into the air, further exposing East Palestine residents to its waste. Some of the toxins released in the controlled burn included phosgene, a deadly gas used during World War I, and hydrogen chloride.
According to residents, it took Norfolk Southern 24 crucial hours to notify locals as to the danger of the spill, time that should have been spent evacuating those closest to the derailment. Residents complained of contaminated waterways as locals reported animals dropping dead and rivers filling with dead fish. Many residents took to social media to chronicle the contamination, arguing that the true severity of the damage was being downplayed.
As of February 14, officials have finally revealed that there were more toxic chemicals on the train than originally reported. When burned, vinyl chloride can create hydrochloric acid, and when it is mixed with clouds, it creates acid rain. If exposed, residents may undergo DNA mutations that could linger for years before manifesting as deadly cancers.
All in the Name of Profit
This derailment was quite possibly one of the worst ecological disasters in modern American history, and it could have been avoided. Once again, like so many preventable disasters, the fault can be traced directly to corporate greed and profit incentives. This disaster was a direct result of overwork, hazardous working conditions, and understaffing from companies trying to maximize profits.
Union rail workers have expressed major concerns about “Precision Scheduled Railroading” for years. Precision Scheduled Railroading is a business concept from the early 1990s that emphasizes maximizing carload, this has led to heavier trains crossing the country at higher speeds for the sake of better shareholder returns. The problem is, the heavier and longer the train is, the worse the disaster is if something goes wrong. Last fall, rail workers threatened to strike, demanding safer working conditions and paid sick leave in an attempt to prevent disasters like East Palestine from happening.
We all know how that worked out. Biden recommended Congress intervene, to which the Senate, in a bipartisan vote of 80 to 15, sent the anti-strike bill to Biden who promptly signed it into law, allowing railroad companies to continue to cut costs at the expense of workers and public safety.
Protesters and local residents have long warned of what they call “bomb trains,” freight trains carrying hazardous material running at high speeds through working-class neighborhoods. The controlled burns that resulted were both an effort to clear the tracks and resume rail traffic as soon as possible. The indifference on the part of the rail bosses to the health and safety of working-class residents is undeniable.
Companies like Norfolk Southern have seen the largest profit margins of any industry. Norfolk Southern’s revenue totaled $12 billion last year. The company’s value rests at $53 billion. In previous years, Norfolk Southern’s lobbyists undermined safety rules that would require rail cars that carry toxic materials to have modern electronic braking systems. To make matters worse, the Ohio freight train carrying hazardous chemicals did not qualify as a “high-hazard flammable train” according to the National Transportation Safety Board. For a decade, the board has attempted to broaden the classification of hazardous materials to include Class 2 flammable gasses such as Vinyl chloride.
The freight train derailment was a failure at every level. Preventative measures were consistently brought to light and then deliberately ignored and undermined. The solutions could not have been dictated more clearly, and railroad workers took every step short of a wildcat strike to ensure that their demands were recognized.
Residents of East Palestine have since attended several town hall meetings in the wake of the derailment to voice their concerns over the potential long-term health effects of the chemical spill. Norfolk Southern was not in attendance.
If it was not already clear, billionaires, conglomerates, and the capitalist class don’t care about the well-being of workers or the public. This is but another chapter in the long legacy of environmental disasters disproportionately affecting BIPOC and working-class communities for the sake of profit.
No “saviors”, either from the current administration or the bourgeois class will support or serve the working people of this country. That task is for workers and workers alone. The only solution is militant collective action.