The East Palestine, Ohio, burn pit: How many cancers will train wreck cause?

At a town hall meeting attended by more than 200 people, East Palestine residents made a list of demands including: Relocation for anyone who wants it; independent environmental testing; ongoing medical testing and monitoring; safe disposal of toxic waste; and for Norfolk Southern to pay 100% of costs.

The profits-first safety-last Norfolk Southern railway has turned East Palestine, Ohio, into a burn pit. Like the dumps operated by the U.S. military in formerly occupied Afghanistan and still occupied Iraq, the Feb. 3 train wreck poisoned a wide area. 

The deliberate ignition of five tank cars on Feb. 6 released a mushroom cloud of toxins. A temporary evacuation didn’t help much. Residents are reporting health problems, including bronchitis and skin rashes, while thousands of fish have died.

“The whole sky was black,” was how Darlington, Pennsylvania, resident Amanda Kemmer described conditions after the cars were blown up. Darlington is just nine miles from East Palestine. 

“And then you get this chemical smell in the house,” the mother of four children said. “Everyone had a headache and didn’t feel well and was sick to their stomach.” 

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called this disaster a “controlled release” and said he approved of it. A hole was punched into each of the tank cars so that the vinyl chloride inside could pour into a pit and be set on fire.

Used to make PVC pipe, packaging, and coatings, vinyl chloride is dangerous, according to the National Cancer Institute. Exposure to it increases the risk of liver, brain, and lung cancers as well as lymphoma and leukemia.

That’s a reason why vinyl chloride is being phased out around the world. Germany banned dumping it in landfills in 2005. Truckloads of the burned residue are now being shipped to Indiana, Michigan, and Texas.

The excuse given by both the railroad and Gov. DeWine for the deliberate burning of this poison was to prevent the tank cars from exploding. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro thinks the real reason was more about clearing the tracks quicker. 

“Amtrak Joe” in the White House knows about burn pits. President Biden blames them for killing his 49-year-old son Joseph “Beau” Biden III, who died from brain cancer. 

So why doesn’t Biden sanction Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw like he does Cuba, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and Zimbabwe? While Shaw raked in $4.5 million last year, the U.S. government is trying to economically strangle these countries.

Saving money, wasting lives

Eighteen years ago, a Norfolk Southern train hauling chlorine and other chemicals derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina, on Jan. 6, 2005. Poisonous chlorine gas was released, killing 10 people.

The train was operating in what railroaders call “dark territory”—a track without wayside signals. Only a small switch target warned engineer Christopher Seeling too late that the track was misaligned for a factory siding.

Signals save lives, but profits come first to the railroad brass. Greed cost 28-year-old Brother Seeling, who was secretary-treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 85 – Teamsters, his life.

Last year Norfolk Southern reported profits of $3.27 billion. The outfit has gotten rid of 12,000 workers since 2015 – 40% of its workforce.

The corporate model called Precision Scheduled Railroading is responsible for these cutbacks. PSR calls for longer trains with fewer workers.

The train that poisoned East Palestine was 150 cars long. Fortunately, there were three railroaders in the lead locomotive: an engineer, conductor and a conductor trainee. They were able to cut off the locomotives from the burning train.

The railroad monopolies want to operate with just a one-person crew. Forty-seven people were killed when a runaway train with 72 oil tank cars crashed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, on July 6, 2013. There was just one engineer on it, who had been instructed to leave the train. 

Last year U.S. railroads reported 1,049 derailments. That’s about three per day.

That’s almost the same number of people killed by police last year. Of the derailments, 355 of them involved hazardous materials

Gambling with safety

The train wreck in Ohio was caused by an overheated bearing on one of the train axles. Wayside defect detectors are supposed to catch a failure before a tragedy occurs. But there’s no government standard for how high the temperature has to be before the crew is alerted.

Around 30 miles before the train reached East Palestine, a detector showed the bearing was 103 degrees Fahrenheit above the surrounding temperature. A surveillance camera captured flames coming from underneath the car.

Norfolk Southern, however, set the detectors so they wouldn’t report a problem until a bearing reached at least 170 degrees above air temperature. This was gambling a train could stop in time.

By the time the train reached the next detector near East Palestine, the bearing was 253 degrees above air temperature. The train crew was finally alerted, but it was too late to prevent the wreck, even though the engineer and other employees were blameless. 

Why was the alarm set at such a high temperature? With the super long trains demanded by Precision Scheduled Railroading, the conductor might have to walk back a mile or more over stone ballast to check a car.

That is if there wasn’t a bridge or some other obstacle. Cutting off freight 100 cars back and then pushing the car with a “hot box” into a siding that might be miles away would cause delays.

An example of railroad management’s recklessness is cutting the number of workers that specialized in checking the defect detectors. According to Christopher Hand, director of research at the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, as recently as three years ago, there were five members of the union, called “electronic leaders,” assigned to inspect Norfolk Southern’s wayside detectors in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Now there are none.

The obvious solution is to run shorter trains and keep more employees on the payroll. But that means less profits for Wells Fargo and the hedge funds that are Norfolk Southern’s biggest stockholders. 

Right-wing clown show

Bringing a pallet of bottled water with his name on the label, Donald Trump has visited East Palestine. So did that well-known public health expert Rudy Giuliani. 

When he was New York City’s mayor in 1995, Giuliani sought to sell three public hospitals and get rid of 1,000 hospital beds. 

Why should anybody think these two racist clowns care about poor and working people in East Palestine?

Tucker Carlson on Fox News is claiming that people in East Palestine are being ignored because they are overwhelmingly white. That’s what a fascist demagogue sounds like.

Where were Trump and Fox News when the water systems in Jackson, Mississippi, and Flint, Michigan, failed? Both cities have Black majorities. Black people were mocked as they were drowning in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. 

Tucker Carlson attacks defunding killer cops, but he says nothing about the defunding of the Federal Railroad Administration and its safety inspectors.

The genuine anger at Norfolk Southern management has helped force it to discuss giving sick days to 3,000 track workers. They’re members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, part of the Teamsters union. 

Talks with other railroad unions will follow. Last year the railroad outfits refused to budge on this issue.

Nobody should be fooled by pseudo-populist attacks on rail companies by right-wingers. The railroad monopolies are envied by other capitalists for their above-average profits.

By slashing jobs, Precision Scheduled Railroading delayed service to many shippers. Even containers from West Coast ports were embargoed for a time.

Norfolk Southern has its own defenders in the media. One of the CNN talking heads is David Urban, a Norfolk Southern lobbyist.

The real answer to the East Palestine disaster is a people’s takeover of the railroads. They’re a public utility that should be run in the interests of people, not super-profits.

The writer is a retired Amtrak worker.

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