An approximately 150-car train carrying hazardous materials crashed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3. What does it mean to regular people like you and I?.
Several of these hazardous chemicals were released into the East Palestine environment as a result of the derailment. Many of them can cause respiratory difficulties and skin irritation, with vinyl chloride being particularly hazardous as it is extremely flammable and may cause cancers and death.
A class action lawsuit filed against Norfolk Southern, the rail company responsible for the train, alleges that over 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride were released into the surrounding area as a result of the derailment. Numerous East Palestine residents have already experienced symptoms such as headaches, coughs and rashes despite state and federal claims that there are not dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or water.
The disaster in East Palestine probably seems like a fluke since one would assume that a train derailment is pretty big news, and that if they happened often we would hear about them. However, this is not the case. A U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety summary found that Norfolk Southern averaged around 163 derailments and just under three hazardous material releases per year over a 10 year period.
Furthermore, years prior to this disaster Norfolk Southern and other rail companies strongly opposed federal regulations that enforced greater railway safety standards. These updated standards would have required the implementation of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes for trains carrying hazardous materials, a braking system endorsed by the FRA as early as 2008. However, these brake changes were axed following Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory.
Norfolk Southern’s history and the opposition that rail companies have shown toward federal safety laws illustrate a major issue with safety and negligence in the railway industry.
Accidents happen. Machine parts fail and people mess up. But when a safety system is rejected and absurd amounts of toxic chemicals are somehow allowed to spill, companies like Norfolk Southern need to be held accountable. The federal authorities that have the power to do something need to do their damn jobs.
For one, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg needs to have increased power over corporate ongoings, and needs to actually be mandated to utilize that power. If a secretary of transportation, or in the Canadian context, a minister of transport, has the power to enforce safety regulations that can prevent harm or obtain justice, they should use that power.
Companies that cause death, harm or disaster due to negligence should be nationalized with their executive staff indicted or fined. In 2021, the seven major rail companies in Canada and the U.S. made a combined US$27 billion in net income. These are companies responsible for upholding the national economies, and they are clearly profiting handsomely in the process.
That being said, there is no reason they should be trusted to do so, especially when Norfolk Southern alone is responsible for so many yearly derailments. Enforce government oversight and ownership of these companies, then watch how safe they become.
There is no excuse for these types of disasters, especially when they are preventable.