Images of smoke plumes, dead fish, and McDonald’s hamburgers in East Palestine, Ohio, have come to define news coverage of the recent disastrous train derailment. Yet, even now, the derailment has barely reached mainstream media attention, leaving the exact details of the causes and consequences of the spilling of vinyl chloride into the town’s water and air ambiguous.
Beyond these photos are underreported stories of the past, the deregulation of industry, and railroad strikes. Thousands of train cars transport chemicals as, if not more, volatile than vinyl chloride daily. Climate disasters have been possible since the inception of the chemicals industry. How, then, do we prevent them? What went wrong?
Traditionally, toxic and non-toxic chemicals have been transported across the United States from producers to manufacturers via train. However, the small number of train crashes compared to other modes of transport made it a safer option to ensure that potentially dangerous substances travel safely across the country. Unfortunately, the reliability of this practice could be better due to the deregulation and under-regulation of the railroad industry.
Many have recalled the Trump administration’s roll-back of Obama-era requirements for installing electronic brakes on trains transporting large amounts of high-hazard materials in response to the East Palestine derailment. While this may cause further disasters, the rule fails to relate to the current vinyl chloride spill, as it is not labeled highly hazardous. Of course, this causes more concern as a chemical that has killed an estimated 40,000 animals falls below the threshold of “highly hazardous,” raising fears of what the Trump-era ruling could mean if a chemical in this category were to enter the environment.
What, or who, is responsible for the East Palestine train derailment? Partisan answers pointing fingers at the Trump administration only distract from the actual key players— the railroad industry.
The train that derailed in East Palestine was a Norfolk Southern train. Another Norfolk Southern train derailed in North Carolina this past week. Although this derailment has had less disastrous environmental effects, it is concerning that two derailments occurred within one month of each other.
The possibility of a derailment is never far off, with companies as reckless as Norfolk Southern transporting volatile compounds across the country. Exhausting and inhumane working hours for workers across the railroad industry also make the industry more dangerous. The Biden administration’s lackluster response to railroad worker strikes shows that safety falls second to profit. Potential earnings of private corporations have led our government, under Democrats and Republicans, to fail to regulate and protect our country from chemical catastrophes.
The spill in East Palestine is the first indication of an incoming era of chemical disasters that await us. Without severe changes to the railroad industry that prioritize safety and protecting our environment, we will see more threats to the health of our environment and the people who inhabit it. Will we challenge these industries or see the devastation surrounding East Palestine replicated across the country?
Caroline Geer is from Northville Mich.
Her majors are sociology/anthropology and race and ethnic studies.