By CARLOS SAPIR
A 150-car Norfolk Southern freight train carrying many different toxic and explosive chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, wreaking havoc on public health and the environment. While the mechanical culprit for the derailment was a faulty axle, the responsibility for the disaster lies with the train companies that have been cutting corners on safety and staffing, making “accidents” such as this one a calculated cost of doing business under capitalism. Although it is a small miracle that no one died from the derailment itself, in part thanks to the luck of its occurring in a sparsely-populated rural area, the environmental toll of the leaked chemicals has yet to be fully calculated. In the meantime, the working conditions that caused the accident are still fully in force.
The list of ways that train companies have skimped on safety to pad their short-term profits is almost as long as the derailed train: Norfolk Southern Corp. boasted in a recent annual report that it had increased average train weight and length by 21% and 20% respectively, a similar pattern to other companies in freight rail. While longer trains mean more freight volume, they also cause a number of safety risks, reducing braking performance, providing less time for safety inspections, and increasing the chances of communication problems for workers on the train. This has come alongside increasingly lean staffing for the trains themselves, with a 30% reduction in workforce in the sector since 2015 (and an even sharper reduction of 45% for Norfolk Southern in particular).
With ever fewer workers forced to do work under increasingly dangerous conditions, a disaster was, and still is, inevitable. As previously reported by Workers’ Voice, these policies are in lockstep with the BNSF Railroad’s “Hi-Viz” policy, which requires workers to be on-call for work 90% of the time, preventing them from leading normal lives and all but guaranteeing that train workers will be exhausted and unable to dutifully carry out safety checks.
The significance of the companies’ culpability in this situation is echoed in Railroad Workers United’s statement, which called the ongoing Precision Scheduled Railroading policy imposed by rail companies a “time bomb.” The statement also includes a detailed analysis of the physics behind the derailment and how this situation is the product of intentional corporate decisions.
Environmental impact still unclear, medical experts sound alarm
While the derailment itself was without fatalities, environmental concerns remain. Multiple toxic and/or explosive chemicals—including vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and butyl acrylate—were released from the derailed cars. Vinyl chloride has been found to be associated with a higher risk of certain cancers. Cleanup crews resorted to a “controlled release” of the chemicals, creating massive plumes of smoke and prompting the evacuation of the area’s 5000 residents. While evacuees were given the all-clear to return home a few days later, they found themselves greeted by foul odors, headaches, sore throats, rashes, and nausea, as well as witnessing the ominous deaths of chickens, cats, and fish.
In the words of one medical expert, shocked at the speed with which residents were told to return, “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so that we could get a railroad open.” In addition to concerns about the air, news reports have noted the possibility that local water sources may have been contaminated.
It is further notable that isobutylene, which posed the greatest explosive risk among the spilled chemicals, is used as an ingredient in gasoline. The threat posed by explosive train cargo is yet another danger to life incurred by the capitalist economy’s addiction to fossil fuel. These risks gave been greatly magnified by the proposal by the gas industry, backed by the Trump administration three years ago, to ship liquified and pressurized natural gas by rail. An explosion affecting just 22 train cars of liquified natural gas holds the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb.
For safe, worker-run railroads
Corporate greed is the menace that threatens the safety of every community with a rail route. More than 1700 derailments take place every year in the United States. With safety and staffing as the foremost concerns in recent contract negotiations, and with the Biden administration moving to prevent these workers from carrying out a strike, it is starkly clear that workers are locked in a fight for our lives against the capitalist profit machine and the government that protects it. Winning this battle will require organizing and mobilizing rail workers, with the solidarity of the rest of the labor movement behind them. Workers in this fight are once more on the front line of not only the defense of working class living conditions, but the safety of the environment and general public as well.
Photo: Gene J. Puskar / AP