Thursday, February 22, 2024

Failing US Rail infrastructure responsible for toxic chemical spill

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On February 3rd, 2023, a Norfolk Southern Railway freight train carrying thousands of gallons of toxic and hazardous material derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, in the United States.

The train blazed and burned for more than two days releasing toxic chemicals in the air.

Residents within a one mile radius of the crash site were evacuated. The National Transportation Safety Board announced that the derailment was 100% preventable.

Thousands of fish were found dead in the waterways around the area.

An estimated 45,000 animals, especially aquatic animals, have been found dead as a direct result of the incident.

The Norfolk Southern freight train that was operating from the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis yard in Madison, Illinois, to Norfolk Southern Conway Yard, in Conway, Pennsylvania, was a 2.8 kilometer long train that was carrying 141 loaded cars and nine empty ones.

20 of the cars were carrying hazardous materials. One of the employees on the train said that after departure the train had experienced at least one mechanical failure before it became derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.

51 cars derailed ending up in a pile which caught fire and burned for days. 11 of the cars were carrying hazardous material, which burned and released toxic clouds of chemicals in the air, polluted the water system and the land of surrounding areas.

Initial findings revealed that a mechanical problem, which initiated an emergency brake system, caused the derailment.

When a train carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals comes off the tracks and bursts into flames. When the smoke looks like this, makes the air smells strange for days, it doesn’t take an expert to know people will be scared, that they’ll worry. If it can kill thousands of fish, what can it do to them?

Within days, the burned out carriages have been pushed aside to get the trains running again. Life though, is far from back to normal. And the messages that were meant to reassure, for many, have had the opposite effect.

We’re not getting any truth. I’m not safe being here. There is no way we are safe being here.


Local Resident 01

The East Palestine Mayor declared a state of emergency and several emergency agencies gathered at the scene.

A day after the derailment pollutants were detected in two separate rivers.

The Ohio Governor, Mike DeWine, called the incident a matter of life and death and activated the Ohio National Guard, while Pennsylvania Governor, Josh Shapiro, ordered the evacuation of areas that border the derailment site.

What were the causes of the derailment?

The exact cause is still being investigated, but the underlying cause was very clear. And that is the decaying state of the rail infrastructure in the state of Ohio, which is typical of problems which are faced by the railroad and transportation infrastructure across the United States.


No significant direct investment has been put into this area of the economy or society in well over 60 years, and, although it was outstanding in the 1950s, 1960s and even the 1970s, decay is having its inevitable results. Infrastructure investment is not “fashionable”.


Everyone likes to build new roads, new bridges, but there is much less interest in maintaining old railroads and old roads and that is the root cause of the problem.


Martin Sieff, Author and Political Analyst

The two governors on the next day ordered a mandatory evacuation of all residents within a one by two mile area. The Norfolk Southern emergency crews conducted a controlled release and burn of the five tanks that had not derailed and contained vinyl chloride to prevent an explosion, releasing more toxic chemical into the environment. The evacuation was finally lifted on February 9th, almost a week after the incident.

I just want justice for community. I want the community back as it was before this devastation, I can smell the chemicals in the air, it’s quite disturbing. It settles in the evening more so. It’s pretty desolate when you go to the dollar store. At night, in the evening, where the chemicals lie low and the cars are out of the community, I can notice it so much more. And it started making me nauseous.


Resident 02

I’ve learned, very early in life, and with every other community I’ve dealt with, and this community’s going to do exactly that. Nobody knows what happened to them better than them. They have already experienced it, they know what they’re feeling, they know what the reactions are, they have seen the dead fish, the dead animals.


They instinctually know something’s wrong. They instinctually know you’re not listening to me because I was here but you’re going to tell me something otherwise, and they’re banding together and they’re going to stay real connected to that inner voice.


They know what they know. Nobody’s going to tell them otherwise; they know what they’ve experienced. And they’re running on instincts and the connection to an event that they were a part of. And they are going to stand strong in the message and that’s exactly where they need to be when you feel so uncertain about information that you’re getting.

On February 23rd The National Transportation Safety Board officials called the derailment preventable and traumatic and indicated an overheated wheel bearing, which was 253 degrees hotter than the air temperature, as a likely cause of the catastrophe.

According to an NTSB report a defect detector built into the railway sent an alarm message to the crew of the train after it recorded high temperatures in a wheel bearing of one of the cars.

Could this crisis have been averted? And what should be done in the future to avoid such catastrophes?

First of all, the railway system should be nationalized. it’s ridiculous that it’s divided up in the hands of various capitalists across the country who then just use it as a milk cow to make as much money as possible. In the last year the company that controlled this disaster, they made I think it was $2.8 billion.


I can’t remember the exact sum but it was billions of dollars they made and yet the workers are poorly paid, they are not given any leave for sick, they’re not even getting sick leave and it’s the mentality in the US. In fact Congress just passed a special, I don’t know if it’s a bill or if it’s just some kind of announcement that socialism is bad, that we don’t want anything to do with socialism or communism.


This was a recent Congress legislation. And, in fact, the only answer to this disaster is socialism for the railway, at least, when you want to you want government control of the infrastructure of transport.


That should be a bottom line. But we live in an neoliberal age and we like to give our infrastructure, even our water, to private capitalists who then just make billions of dollars on it and don’t care what the environmental and safety conditions are.


Eric Walberg, Author and Journalist

Three weeks after the derailment and release of toxic material into the environment, US President Joe Biden finally ordered federal agencies to check on families affected by the disaster.

Teams from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will finally visit homes in the area to check on the well being of residents. Residents of the counties affected, however, are distrustful of federal agencies and are worried about the toxic chemicals released in their environment and how it is affecting them.

House Republicans have initiated an investigation into the February 3, Ohio train derailment in which they are blaming Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, for a delayed response to the disaster. James Comer, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to the Transportation Secretary stressing the department’s responsibility to ensure safe and reliable transport in the US, claiming that the department had ignored the catastrophe for over a week.

What are US officials doing in response to the crisis?

The answer is first of all a great deal. They are taking it seriously, they are certainly acting responsibly, but we do not know the full details of what they are doing, and there is concern and even some skepticism over that. The widespread fear, certainly in the area of East Palestine, is that the hazardous materials spill was much worse than was originally admitted. And that it could cause long term health disruptions and even lead to the permanent abandonment of the city of East Palestine. It is too soon to say if that is indeed going to be the case. But there are certainly widespread fears about it.


Martin Sieff, Author and Political Analyst

Major rail accidents in the past have pushed Congress to take actions necessary in preventing future disasters.

When 25 people were killed in a collision between two trains in Los Angeles, California, in 2008, Congress mandated a safety system called “positive train control” to be installed more widely in the railway system.

Safety proposals were also put forward during the Obama administration, when several derailments with trains carrying hazardous material took place, but only some of them were implemented.

And his reaction was to immediately go to Ukraine and Poland to drum up more war hysteria in Ukraine so and when he was asked about it, he just brushed it aside and said, That’s not so important. And the Secretary of Transport, Buttigieg, he didn’t bother going, so no one bothered going. At least in the last week, apparently, in the last day someone from the transport department has actually been there.


So there’s some acknowledgement of the seriousness. The only political official that went, political person, was Trump. And of course, that is part of his war against the Biden’s so he jumps at any opportunity, even though he was responsible, at least in part, for the bad state of the railways under his presidency, and he was famously limiting any kind of government oversight of anything, so that included government oversight of the safety.


Eric Walberg, Author and Journalist

Railway operators have been reducing their staff in the past decade, even though the number of freight trains on railways has increased. The operators have been trying to cut costs.

Consequently there were only two rail workers and one trainee on board the Ohio train who would have to monitor 150 cars.

Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio said thousands of workers have been laid off from Norfolk Southern, but they have not invested in safety rules and safety regulations, which results in this kind of incident.

Is the magnitude of the crisis being covered up?

Again, we do not know. But there is certainly widespread suspicion that this is indeed the case, both in national watchdog organizations and comments on social media and also it is very clear, there is widespread suspicion about this among local inhabitants in the area. And again, the track record is not reassuring.


If you look back even through the 1960s and 1950s hundreds of thousands of people developed cancer from atmospheric nuclear testing in the Nevada desert, especially as early as the 1950s. Even the famous movie star John Wayne is believed to have contracted the lung cancer, although he was a heavy smoker too, that eventually killed him because he made films in an area of the Nevada desert very close to where nuclear testing, or in Utah, very close to where nuclear testing was being carried out at the time in the 1950s.


There are many such examples of toxic fallout and environmental issues since then, the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, was only founded by Richard Nixon in 1970. And even since then there have been many such incidents. So you are right. There is concern and the concern is real.


Martin Sieff, Author and Political Analyst

Meanwhile, former US President Donald Trump visited the site of the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

He called the response towards the derailment “a betrayal” and added that he hopes when Biden visits Ohio after he finishes his tour in Ukraine that he would have some money left over to spend on this disaster.

This is while Democrats have shot back accusing Trump and his administration of rolling back train and chemical safety regulations.

I sincerely hope that when your representatives and all of the politicians get here, including Biden, to get back from touring Ukraine that he’s got some money left over. That was a tragedy. Close to an unbelievable tragedy could have been really bad.


Donald J. Trump, Former US President

While politicians are playing the blame game, it has been estimated that close to 45,000 aquatic animals have been killed as a result of the derailment of the train and the release of toxic chemicals into the environment. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, close to 39,000 minnows and another 6000 other species, including fish, amphibians, and crayfish, have died because of this disaster.

It’s still too early to say that, initially the company responsible immediately sent out an offer of $1,000 to everybody that has their address, including the zip code where the accident took place. I don’t know what the zip code was 1234 or five. So anyone with that zip code can get $1,000. but this was dismissed as trivial, and in fact, it was it was this kind of gimmicky. This is the way American politics (works).


Eric Walberg, Author and Journalist

Toxic wastewater from the Ohio train is being sent to Texas for disposal, raising concerns among residents as well as local officials. The material has been transported to Deer Park, Texas, where Harris County Judge, Lina Hidalgo, said that it’s a very real problem.

“We were told yesterday, the materials were coming, only to learn today. They’ve been here for a week”.

She added that the “government officials have provided the information they had, but it turns out they don’t seem to have the full information themselves”.

I and my team learned yesterday that firefighting water from East Palestine was going to be sent to Deer Park which is one of the 34 cities in Harris County for disposal.


I know that our community was taken aback by the news, just as I was, and I don’t want to be sitting on information that is relevant to this very public, very concerning, disaster that is still ongoing in Ohio.


First of all, we heard the news yesterday that some contaminated firefighting water will be coming to Harris County.


Today, speaking with Texas Molecular, we learned that, in fact, some of the firefighting water is already here. According to Texas Molecular the water began arriving to Harris County,”last Wednesday-ish”. That’s what they told us.


According to Texas Molecular, Harris County has received a half a million gallons of firefighting water and will be receiving up to one and a half million more gallons for around 2 million gallons total.


Judge Lina Hidalgo, Harris County, Texas

Residents of East Palestine and nearby affected areas have filed at least nine lawsuits that allege negligence and carelessness caused the train derailment and chemical spill. Court records show the claimants seek class action status, with more than $5 million in damages. The lawsuits also claimed that Norfolk Southern burned the vinyl chloride and turned it into toxic gas instead of disposing it safely.

What is the likely the outcome of these lawsuits?

The US legal system,… there are both positive and negative aspects to this, but it’s certainly in contrast, for example, to Britain, there is a vast opportunity (in the USA) for private individuals, or private interest groups, to take legal action, to file lawsuits for damages in these areas. It is common these days, for example, for environmental disasters to recieve extremely irresponsible treatment. (It was common) back in the 1950s and 60s and 70s by both the US government, and by major corporations, having to shell out hundreds of millions and in some cases as much as billions of dollars in payments to compensate families whose loved ones died,or were seriously ill or became invalids for life from the long term consequences of environmental disasters, toxic spills and other events. So the concern that the companies involved in this particular case could even be driven out of business by legal actions is very real. And this is something that will play out, not quickly, but over many years to come.


Martin Sieff, Author and Political Analyst

Calling the lobbying influence of the rail industry a big problem, politicians are once again pointing to problems of America’s infrastructure and how, for many years, very little investment has been made to upgrade the system.

The ailing infrastructure puts people’s lives in danger while the desperately needed funds are finding their way to Ukraine and others fighting proxy wars on behalf of the United States.

The most noted environmentalist, Ralph Nader, he was saying, he said “I told you so! I have been warning you for decades about this. And no one listens”. So it takes a disaster before someone listens. So you know, there’s talk, there are environmentalists, but … this should be part of a peace movement against war, because war is the biggest environmental disaster and if people were strong on the issue of peace, all of these issues could be dealt with. 


This isn’t the only case, the environment, on all aspects of the environment, we are in a crisis, and part of that is the war that’s now taking place in Ukraine. So we really have to try and be activists. Unfortunately, the level of activism in the West is very low, there is a very weak peace movement.


Perhaps in the next year this will change with the war in Ukraine. There’s finally beginning to come together, a network of people to fight all of these evils that we’re experiencing, of the environment, of human relations between nations.


Eric Walberg, Author and Journalist

Whenever a disaster occurs the first thing politicians do is to blame each other and then most fingers turn to lobbies and corporations that benefit from not following safety rules.

The corporations and lobbies are, essentially, the entities that are running the United States.

Billions of dollars are being spent on wars and on the military, ultimately, filling the pockets of large weapons manufacturers while it could have been spent on infrastructure to avoid these disasters,

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