Standing beside a kitchen sink in an Ohio resident’s home, officials clink cups before sipping glasses full of tap water (WLWT). It’s the first of two photo ops from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, and other officials following a fiery train derailment in East Palestine weeks earlier. Officials deploy the familiar practice as a show of good faith following a crisis. The aim is to alleviate unease surrounding the safety of the town’s municipal water and restore trust in state officials as they push for a return to normalcy. Skepticism about the integrity of the testing results and claims from state officials is understandable. Just days prior, the local high school’s water fountain spouts were covered and locked from use, citing “danger,” dead aquatic life populated waterways, an iridescent oily sheen stained the top of local creeks, and cases of respiratory, eye, and skin issues and a lingering chemical stench continue to be reported (CNN). That’s to say nothing of the thousands in political donations to Ohio state officials and legislators, including the governor, from the railroad company responsible for the incident.
Weeks before the derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, that forced thousands of residents from their homes in fear for their health (Columbus Dispatch), Norfolk Southern Railway gave a $10,000 donation to Ohio Gov. DeWine, marking $29,000 in political funding they sent the governor since his 2018 run for office (WSYX). For the past six years, the railroad company spent $98,000 in contributions to Ohio lawmakers and officials, mostly Republicans.
• Donate to residents of East Palestine directly.
• Donate to organizations distributing bottled water to the community.
• Support organizations like River Valley Organizing and Solidarity for East Palestine mutual aid working with the East Palestine community.
Norfolk Southern, which has also been cited as a Cop City donor, has been actively lobbying against railroad safety measures. They fought against a proposed bill that would mandate two-person crews on freight trains in Ohio and helped to repeal a 2015 federal rule requiring freight trains hauling hazardous materials—like the one in East Palestine—to upgrade their “Civil War-era” brakes to electronic braking systems (Lever News).
They also categorized the train as carrying “general merchandise,” not high-hazard cargo train, despite transporting hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, a gas and known human carcinogen, because it had under 70 cars containing flammable materials (PolitiFact). Still, it caused officials, first responders, and the neighboring community to be unprepared (News5).
Since the derailment in East Palestine, another Norfolk Southern train carrying chemicals derailed in Michigan, though no leakage was reported (Detroit Free Press). Union Pacific Railroad, the second largest U.S. freight railroad company, had two non-hazardous derailments in California and Nebraska. A third in Texas resulted in a driver fatality (Statista).
According to a USA Today analysis, in the past decade, hazardous material, or hazmat, leaks from trains occurred more than 5,000 times, and derailments accounted for 10% of those incidences (USA Today). In 2022, there were 337 hazmat leaks, 25% resulting from train derailings. Unlike derailments, which average 1,000 a year (Washington Post), hazmat train incidences are rare; however, there has been an uptick in reported violations in the last five years.
Human error, broken tracks or defective rails, and equipment failure are the leading causes of train accidents (Federal Railroad Association). The National Transportation Safety Board suspects a mechanical failure caused by a wheel bearing on a railcar is the cause for the Ohio train derailment, though their investigation is ongoing (NTSB).
For years, railroad workers and unions warned of the inevitability of such disaster if safety protocols continued to be axed by railroad companies to boost profits. Despite this, these companies have depleted the workforce but increased workload, shortened inspection times, deferred maintenance, and avoided reporting defects. They have also chosen to run longer, heavier trains (often inadequately staffed with unequal weight distribution and thus harder to control) at faster speeds. These unsafe tactics have been openly touted by companies implementing precision scheduled railroading (PSR) (Vice, Supply Chain Dive). At its core, the PSR model is aimed at “keeping rail cars moving” and has been adopted by the major rail companies Union Pacific, NSF Railway, and Norfolk Southern, which also had the most train accidents in 2022 (Supply Chain Dive, Federal Railroad Association).
These companies also stalled labor negotiations that included providing seven paid sick days to workers, which would have cost the industry $321 million (less than 2% of their profits in a year). In 2022, the top railroad companies made over $21 billion in profits, paid their CEOs $200 million, and spent almost $3 million in campaign contributions, mostly to Republicans (Jacobin, Senate.gov, Open Secrets). That same year, a sick leave measure failed to get enough Republican support in the Senate, followed by legislation that forced the hands of railroad workers and unions hoping to strike (The Hill).
The $80 billion railroad industry has used its money and status as the “backbone of this nation’s economy” to hinder labor efforts and block regulations at the expense of the people living along nearly 140,000 miles of train routes (Federal Railroad Association). But corporate greed could not exist without government complicity. And publicity stunts by officials aren’t going to restore faith in a system that profited from exploiting a working-class community. Trusting politicians and officials to have your best interests during a crisis is not something marginalized people and working-class communities can rely on, especially after national scrutiny fades, as witnessed in Flint, Michigan, or Jackson, Mississippi. So while it’s too soon to know the impact of the derailment in East Palestine, it’s important to pay attention to East Palestine and listen to its residents’ demands and needs, even when their story disappears from the headlines.
• A Norfolk Southern freight train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, derailed on February 3.
• Railroad workers warned for years of a possible wreck caused by a railroad industry disinterested in human safety.
• Railroad companies have been lining officials’ pockets and lobbying against safety measures.