96 car Train derailment in Trinway, Ohio USA 96 car Train derailment in Trinway, Ohio USA. Source: Paula R. Lively - Flickr / cropped form original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

The release of toxic chemicals due to a derailment in Ohio was caused by profiteering and attacks on working conditions, explains John Clarke

The derailment of Norfolk Southern train 32N, just outside of East Palestine, Ohio, on 3 February, was the product of a range of factors. These included the reckless pursuit of profit, the greatly intensified exploitation of rail workers, a blatant disregard for safe operating practices, and the services that are rendered by state regulators ever ready to ignore the dangers faced by workers and communities.

The scale, seriousness, and broader implications of the accident must be understood. According to Vice magazine, drawing on investigations carried out by its Motherboard website, ‘Thirty-eight of the train’s 150 cars ploughed into each other and thundered to the ground. Some of the cars then burst into flames, and the flames damaged another 12 cars.’ Among the cars that came off the tracks, five were tankers carrying vinyl chloride, an industrial chemical long known to be a cause of cancer.

Initially, the tankers containing this dangerous substance prevented any leaking from taking place. However, ‘Norfolk Southern worried the tankers wouldn’t hold, which would produce a massive explosion and release the known carcinogen into the air and ground just outside a town where thousands of people live. They chose to burn it instead, creating a giant smoke cloud that rose high into the air.’

Major risks

Three days after the derailment, with the tankers in a critical state, thousands of local people were forced to evacuate their homes and the company carried out a ‘controlled release’. ‘This involved blowing holes in the tankers, leaking the vinyl chloride into a trench, and setting it on fire. The operation created a gigantic smoke cloud that garnered apocalyptic comparisons.’

Officials warned that this procedure ‘would send phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air.’ Phosgene has been used as a chemical weapon and hydrogen chloride ‘can result in chemical burns, respiratory failure, and death.’ It was determined after three days that it was safe for residents to return, though a strange smell lingered in the air and there were reports of animals getting sick and dying.

The crash wasn’t a surprise to some of those who work for this company and who have been interviewed by Motherboard. ‘They have been warning that something like this, or even much worse, was inevitable.’ It is common for rail workers in the US to give trains nicknames and one worker revealed that: ‘They call this one “32 Nasty”.’ On the run that ended in a derailment, ‘multiple red flags, including two mechanical problems, about 32N went undetected or were ignored in the hours leading up to the crash, according to the two workers familiar with the train.’

Though this train was particularly notorious, Motherboard ‘has reported that Norfolk Southern’s lax safety practices have been applied to its entire network, reflecting a trend happening across the freight rail industry.’ Safety inspection times and personnel have been slashed, hindering efforts to ensure trains are safe before they leave yards or terminals. Crews are dissuaded from reporting safety issues. Workers that persist in raising red flags are often ignored.’

The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen has also raised concerns about factors that contributed to the events in Ohio while stressing that a general deterioration in safety standards was involved. ‘Wayside hot-box detectors are typically placed every 25 miles along a railroad.’ These can ‘detect bearings, axles or other components of a rail car that are overheating’ and relay this information to rail crews.’

According to the union, a reduced workforce has led to decreased inspection of these warning devices and: ‘The rail car that initiated the derailment had an overheated wheel bearing’, while one surveillance video suggests the train’s axle was already on fire before the derailment.

The rank-and-file body, Railroad Workers United, issued a statement after the crash stating that: ‘The root causes of this wreck are the same ones that have been singled out repeatedly, associated with the hedge fund initiated operating model known as “Precision Scheduled Railroading”.’ Adopted in the 1990s, PSR ‘became an effortless way for rail executives and shareholders to inflate profits.’ It ‘mandates trains to transport bigger and heavier loads with fewer workers.’

Biden complicit

This uncontrolled pursuit of profit, regardless of risks and consequences, wouldn’t have been possible unless state regulatory bodies and the political leaders they answer to were entirely complicit in the process. At the end of last year, the Biden administration worked to prevent rail workers across the country from challenging the exploitative and dangerous conditions they face. The legislation was passed to prevent a national rail strike that gave the lie to Biden’s claim to be a champion of workers’ rights.

At present, Norfolk Southern is fighting a legal case that ‘could create a national precedent limiting where workers and consumers can bring cases against corporations.’ The company is trying to use the question of where a lawsuit was filed in order to defeat an effort by Robert Mallory, a former worker who claims his colon cancer was caused by ‘exposure to asbestos and other toxic chemicals on the job.’ Biden’s Department of Justice is intervening in the case on the side of the company.

Meanwhile, the ‘Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, has now resorted to falsely suggesting that he does not have the power to compel the rail industry to upgrade its safety equipment and procedures.’ In 2015, Congress passed a law requiring that a ‘cost-benefit analysis’ be conducted before antiquated braking systems were replaced with Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes. The lack of these brakes has been identified as a factor in the Ohio derailment. Yet, Buttigieg’s department is resisting calls for it to conduct an analysis and make the case for rail safety.

The environmental damage and long-term health impacts of the derailment can’t yet be fully assessed. However, the appalling risks of continuing to move hazardous materials and substances through populated areas with unsafe transportation systems couldn’t be more clear. No one could seriously suggest that the Ohio derailment was unforeseen. Apart from obvious evidence of the dangers and frequent minor mishaps, the horrific Lac Magantic, Quebec derailment, in 2013, that took 47 lives, is proof enough of the threat looming over communities every hour of the day and night.

Demands are now being raised for ‘a genuinely independent and completely public investigation’ of the derailment and all contributing factors. There is little confidence that the present efforts of the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will get at the truth or properly consider who is responsible for what took place. In this situation, Railroad Workers United (RWU) has also taken up the call for ‘public ownership of the railroads.’

In 2019, the Business Roundtable, as a leading collective voice of US capitalists, revised its ‘Principles of Corporate Governance.’ The new statement was signed by ‘181 CEOs who commit to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.’

The rail barons of America are an indication of just how much faith should be placed in the brand of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ that the Business Roundtable peddles. In pursuit of their profits, they destroy decent and safe working conditions and place communities across the country at risk of appalling disasters. They and their political enablers must be challenged relentlessly or their destructive greed will produce even greater horrors than the derailment of train 32N in Ohio.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

Tagged under: