Enough is Enough: Where is the Government’s Sense of Duty in East Palestine?
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- The Bright Side Project
By Emma Buchman, MO Foundation Digital Content Director & Blog Editor
On February 3, fifty train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a community of about 4,800 people. Five of those cars were carrying vinyl chloride; as Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin write in The Hill, vinyl chloride is “a combustible precursor to the plastic PVC that — when burned — converts to the lethal gas phosgene, famously used in World War I gas attacks.” Other hazardous materials on board included butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether.
The company who owned the train, Norfolk Southern, conducted a controlled burn of the spilt materials at the request of state officials (this is in spite of the concerns of experts from Carnegie Mellon University and the Milken Institute of Public Health). Residents within a 1-mile by 2-mile radius were evacuated on February 6, after concerns rose of a major explosion occurring. These residents were eventually allowed to return on February 9 after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that the air quality in the area had returned to normal.
On February 16, EPA Administrator Michael Regan held a press conference where he stated that the families of East Palestine were safe, and that Norfolk Southern would be held accountable for their role in the accident.
These statements are all very assuring… except for the fact that we’ve seen this show before.
Disasters like this are nothing new to us. It was only 36 years ago when the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, releasing obscene amounts of radiation across Ukraine, Belarus, and the rest of Europe. For years after the accident, government leadership assured local residents that everything is fine, there’s no radiation here, don’t worry about it.
But that’s not very convincing when Ukrainian farmers are losing their livestock for “no apparent reason,” or when the pigs born on their farms have never-before-seen birth defects. It becomes even less convincing when cancer rates begin to skyrocket in the regions around the plant, particularly amongst children.
But of course, one of the most tragic aspects of the Chernobyl story is that there would not have been a Chernobyl without the myriad opportunities that the government had to prevent it.
It appears that the U.S. government is following that lead.
Residents in East Palestine are complaining of physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, and a burning sensation in their eyes. They are saying that their beloved pets are dying suddenly. Scores of dead fish are floating down streams, with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimating 3,500 small fish who were killed by the spill as of February 8.
There is clearly something in the water. There is video evidence from residents that shows this: a single rock thrown into a creek bed raising a thick film of god knows what to the surface of the water.
While we appreciate their quick action in evacuating residents, clearly not enough is being done either to assuage their fears, or to truly keep them safe. We don’t really know. We’re all hearing one thing out of the mouths of government officials, but you only have to open TikTok or Reddit to see East Palestine residents still suffering from the impacts of the incident. Given the government’s track record, we’re obviously going to believe the community members who are actually there.
And of course, there is the prevention aspect. This accident should not come as a shock to anyone, least of all the federal government. In addition to East Palestine, there are over 1700 reported train derailments every year; in 2022, 18 of those trains were carrying hazardous materials. Less than two weeks after the catastrophic derailment in Ohio, there was another derailment in Houston, TX. Additionally, according to Environmental Health News,
“Rail workers have been warning that such an accident is imminent for months. In December, the rail workers’ union, Rail Workers United, tried to strike over… management changes they say cut inspection times short, making it more likely that a disaster like this one would occur — an attempt that was shut down by President Joe Biden.”
These safety concerns and reports from whistleblowers and railroad workers go back years. The federal government has repeatedly, under both Democratic and Republican leadership, sided with lobbying groups representing large train and chemical companies over their own safety board. In the early 2010s, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) pushed the Obama administration to expand the kinds of materials that would be applicable under new safety regulations they were creating. The NTSB, the government’s own department that oversees the safety of our transit systems, ultimately lost that battle to a lobbying group from the chemical industry.
While the new regulations under Obama did strengthen the braking requirements for some trains carrying hazardous materials, this small victory was obliterated by the following administration. According to The New York Times, “After a 2016 campaign in which rail industry donors poured more than $6 million into G.O.P. campaign coffers, President Donald Trump repealed the brake rule, and the Biden administration has failed to restore it.”
From the earliest hours of this incident to now, when it finally appears that public pressure is starting to get to them, the government has not shown true accountability. As journalist Branko Marcetic explains,
“The government seems to have outsourced the response and cleanup to Norfolk Southern, the company responsible for the disaster, whose policy has frustrated and confused locals. That includes the company’s decision to do a ‘controlled burning’ to release the chemicals, leading to a black plume of smoke continuously belching carcinogens into the air, whose effects one hazardous materials expert warned may take years or even decades to be felt. That same expert criticized as backwards the decision to offer residents safety testing for their homes after telling them they could go back.”
Despite the difference in the dangerous goods at play (i.e. radiation versus toxic chemicals), incidents like those at Chernobyl and East Palestine are all a part of the same history. We must stop looking at catastrophes like this as individual tragedies and acknowledge them for what they really are: cases in a pandemic, a national and global failure to implement systems of safety and accountability around industrial accidents involving hazardous or toxic materials.
The EPA administrator having a press conference telling everyone that things are safe and that they’ve done their due diligence isn’t enough. In preparing for this piece, I tried to do my own due diligence to make sure our facts were right and assess how dangerous the situation really is (not that I’m any sort of scientist, I just play one on T.V.).
However, that’s a difficult task now because the government has allowed the situation to spiral. It could have been very easy to have a handle on the situation in the days or even hours following the derailment.
But they didn’t – instead, they abdicated their responsibility to the company that caused the accident, and now folks throughout East Palestine and the country are left confused and frightened. It is disrespectful to the citizens of East Palestine not to be as blunt and candid with them as possible.
If people are scared and complaining about health issues over a week after the accident, and it really is safe, then the government has not done its job in public education and outreach to give specific details of why people are safe. There have been varying levels of response from different levels of government, but in terms of the federal government, it is clear that they are not showing true accountability. They have not done enough to earn the public’s trust around this issue.
Accountability for this accident would mean giving the residents of East Palestine the respect and basic courtesy of telling them the truth. It means evacuating East Palestine again if that is what needs to happen, regardless of how it makes the government look.
It means allocating the appropriate federal and state resources to treat those who are impacted, continue to assist first responders who are already there, and liquidate the accident. It means paying for peoples’ medical bills, vet bills, therapy bills, and buying residents’ property from them if they need to permanently evacuate. It means facilitating any potential relocations to make them as easy for evacuees as possible.
It means investing in educational resources for the general public so that they know what to do in case of an accident like this or any other kind of accident involving hazardous materials.
It means building negative consequences into our laws for companies like Norfolk Southern so that they will be more inclined to be safe to begin with, and will be properly punished for not prioritizing public safety.
Accountability for this accident means the federal government saying, “We are so sorry that this happened. It was our fault. This cannot happen again. Field experts, what do we need to do to ensure that? Community members, what do we need to do to help you? We will do it, whatever the material cost,” and meaning it.
People deserve better than this. If you’d like to step up and prove that you actually can handle a catastrophic accident better than the Soviet Union, now is your chance.
So, tell us: what the hell is actually going on?
What is the government doing to clean up these toxic materials and protect East Palestine citizens? Have those efforts been completed? Is it really safe? If so, please explain why in detail.
Are there appropriate experts there who are counteracting the consequences of the disaster? Were they properly consulted in the early stages of the derailment? What long-term plans are being formed to address any future health problems this incident causes?
Who is in danger, and from what specifically? How far-reaching could this disaster be? What is the furthest community that might be impacted by it?
What can the community do to help?
What proactive measures are you taking to prevent future derailments? What laws are you strengthening? What legislation are you writing?
What the hell is going on?
These are simple questions. It should be very easy to answer them. Your move.