East Palestine Ohio Train Derailment

by Scott Moran

This article is based on the current information available to the public.

On February 3rd, 2023, a massive 150-car train, operated by Norfolk Southern Corporation (NSC), derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a small town of approximately 4,800 residents that is forty miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Some of the derailed cars contained hazardous materials and the toxic chemical, vinyl chloride, was spilled into the air before railroad officials burned it to avoid an explosion. [1] Working-class residents struggled to get answers regarding their health and safety, while state and national authorities downplayed the disaster.      

The incident occurred around 9 p.m. Eastern time, on a train that departed from Madison, Illinois en route to Conway, Pennsylvania. The Norfolk Southern train carried three workers: an engineer, the conductor, and a conductor in training. There were no immediate fatalities reported, however, thousands of fish were found dead in local creeks and streams.

Security footage from a business 20 miles west in Salem, Ohio showed a fire emanating from underneath one of the rail cars. [1] [2] The train had a total of 150 cars, of which 141 of them were loaded, and 9 were empty. The crew received an alarm from a track defect detector and the emergency brakes were applied immediately, but this did not prevent the train from derailing.

A former head of research at the Federal Railroad Administration told reporters that electronic brakes could have mitigated or even prevented the derailment and ensuing damage. In any case, Norfolk Southern was not interested in upgrading their braking systems. If implementing new braking systems were profitable for the railroad corporations, there would be no opposition to it. Yet, a few years ago, Norfolk Southern’s lobbyists pressed regulators to repeal the mandate for braking system upgrades. The Trump Administration rolled back the rail safety rules, proving the priority was always profit over the safety of our workers and community. [3] This has put all working people at extreme risk and The Biden Administration, another tool of the capitalist class, has not made moves to reinstate the mandate. Biden put workers further at risk when he stopped railroad workers from striking for more sick time, more safety, and more crews, then forcibly imposed a contract on the workers that made them and the rest of the us less safe!

It should be noted that the length of these freight trains has also become dangerously long. [2]  An employee mentioned “The workers are exhausted, times for car inspections have been drastically cut, and there are no regulations on the size of these trains.” [3] [4] Reducing the length of freight trains would require more labor to conduct additional trains, but the railroad corporations won’t hire additional workers because that would reduce their profit.

The railroad workers’ struggle is a working-class struggle, as we all have a stake in their fight for better conditions. Train derailments happen more often than most would think. In 2022, there were more than 1,000 train derailments in the United States! [5] Norfolk Southern’s profits have been outstanding in the last year, yet the rate of train accidents has continued to increase. This is business as usual under capitalism. This disaster that occurred in East Palestine can happen anywhere. We cannot be sure that this can be prevented in our communities when the greed of capitalism is supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

Many experts continue to claim that these rail accidents are preventable. Then why do we not proactively prevent them? The answer is that it is not profitable. [5] In a socialist society, safety councils would be implemented to ensure that trains operated with maximum safety. [7] Membership of the safety council may consist of engineers, conductors, technicians, scientists, factory workers – the workers that touch, create, maintain, and operate the trains.[9] With socialism, we will always be able to swiftly respond to the interests of the people and ensure the utmost safety because we would not be hindered by the profit motive.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) response to the Norfolk Southern train derailment has been dictated by the interests of capital. Rather than evacuating the immediate area completely, and then properly assessing the damage to create the best cleanup plan of action, Norfolk Southern requested an emergency-controlled burn of the vinyl chloride and the request was granted by the EPA. Although many residents were skeptical of this action because it appeared to expedite the cleanup process to allow the return of normal train operations.

Norfolk Southern did offer financial assistance for relocation during the controlled burn. A lousy $1000 was offered to each family, but many residents were afraid to accept the payment since that may relinquish future legal rights and allow Norfolk Southern an easy way out of a future lawsuit. [6] It should be no surprise that Norfolk Southern captured sky-high profits in 2022. Railway operating revenues were 12.7 billion, up 14%, and income from railway operations was 4.8 billion, a company record. The chairman and CEO James Squires made $13,261,278 in total compensation for 2022. [7]

[1] “East Palestine Train Derailment: What Is Vinyl Chloride and What Happens When It Burns?” cbsnews.com. CBS Interactive, February 8, 2023. https://www.cbsnews.com/pittsburgh/news/vinyl-chloride-east-palestine-train-derailment-toxic-chemicals/.

[2] WHIO Staff. “Wheels Sparking, on Fire 20 Miles before Ohio Train Derailment, Security Footage Shows.” whio.com. WHIO TV 7 and WHIO Radio, February 18, 2023. https://www.whio.com/news/local/wheels-sparking-fire-20-miles-before-ohio-train-derailment-security-footage-shows/72AWB5QYIBFM5FCOAWENV3LTOI/.

[3] Sirota, David, Julia Rock, Rebecca Burns, and Matthew Cunningham-Cook. “Rail Companies Blocked Safety Rules before Ohio Derailment.” levernews.com. The Lever, February 8, 2023. https://www.levernews.com/rail-companies-blocked-safety-rules-before-ohio-derailment/.

[4] Kaplan, Michael. “Excess Size Caused Train to Break down in Days before It Derailed in Ohio, Employees Say.” cbsnews.com. CBS Interactive, February 15, 2023. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ohio-train-derailment-east-palestine-norfolk-southern-excess-size/.

[5] Hernandez, Joe. “There Are about 3 U.S. Train Derailments per Day. They Aren’t Usually Major Disasters.” npr.org. NPR, March 9, 2023. https://www.npr.org/2023/03/09/1161921856/there-are-about-3-u-s-train-derailments-per-day-they-arent-usually-major-disaste.

[6] Robertson, Campbell, and Emily Cochrane. “In Ohio Town Where Train Derailed, Anxiety and Distrust Are Running Deep.” nytimes.com. The New York Times, February 15, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/15/us/ohio-train-derailment-anxiety.html.

[7] Norfolk Southern Corporation. “Norfolk Southern Reports Q4 and Full-Year 2022 Results.” nscorp.com. Norfolk Southern Corporation, January 25, 2023. http://www.nscorp.com/content/dam/QuarterlyEventFiles/4q-2022/4q2022_earnings_release.pdf.

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