Please excuse the length of this post. But once I went down the rabbit hole, I couldn’t get out. To make it seem shorter, I’ve divided it into two parts: Part 1: ” The Causes” and Part 2: “Politics and the Road Ahead.”
The disaster movie screenplay writes itself: An almost two-mile long, 150 car Norfolk Southern train –carrying 20 cars filled with highly toxic vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether and ethylhexyl acrylate — barrels through the dark Ohio night toward the small town of East Palestine, Ohio.
But it’s not that dark. Home security cameras along the tracks recorded the train on fire as a wheel bearing overheats. Twenty miles later, engineers received an alert and attempt to stop the train.
Too late. 38 cars derail,11 of which are carrying hazardous materials, including 5 cars carrying vinyl chloride, a carcinogen. Emergency responders initially have no idea what was in the derailed cars because the warning placards that provide critical information to emergency responders are made of plastic which melts in the fire.
Happily, most of the railcars are not breached. But two days after the derailment, one of the cars carrying vinyl chloride began to overheat and Norfolk Southern, fearing a catastrophic explosion (or perhaps just wanting to restore the rail line faster), blows holes in the 5 cars containing vinyl chloride, drains the contents into ditches and sets it all on fire.
The “controlled burn” creates a uncontrolled mushroom cloud of the burning vinyl chloride and chemicals spilling onto the surrounding land and into nearby waterways.
Generally, burning vinyl chloride is not recommende: it produces phosgene, hydrogen chloride and dioxins that can persist in soil for decades and have been linked with cancer, developmental problems in children and reproductive issues and infertility in adults. Phosgene, you may recall, played a starring role in WWI where it was also used in chemical warfare. Hydrogen chloride also has strict exposure limits. Overexposure can cause chemical burns, respiratory failure, and death.
Republican politicians and MAGA pundits, who had never noticed any previous environmental problems and had never met a rail or environmental or workplace safety regulations they didn’t want to abort, were suddenly shocked, SHOCKED!!! that such a thing could happen in America. Especially Trump-loving America.
And they knew exactly who to blame.
Who was to blame? Norfolk Southern who like other railroads was making massive profits running longer trains and by cutting back on workers and maintenance?
Or maybe the Trump administration that had taken great pride in repealing rail safety and other environmental regulations?
Quickly analyzing the (political) situation, Republicans immediately place the Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
Buttigieg’s main crime? He is gay. And worse, he married a man. Even worse, they had a baby. And the coup de grace — he had the nerve to take time off work to care for the new baby.
Oh and Buttigieg is too “woke” because he criticized construction companies for importing white workers for major construction projects rather than hiring local workers of color. And he seems to be an effective politician who has designs on the Presidency in the post-Biden era.
President Biden, of course, doesn’t escape blame. Instead of bravely venturing to East Palestine, the President sneaks off to Kiev, cowardly riding plains, trains and automobiles for hours through the night into a far-away war zone to defend democracy.
To show him up, former President Donald Trump (yes, the same Donald Trump who repealed rail safety regulations) flies to East Palestine, heroically saving the day with gallons of Trump water and MAGA hats.
Fade to black. Credits.
But let’s get serious
An estimated 25 million people live within a mile of a train route carrying explosive crude oil in the United States. That’s the same substance transported in a train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Québec, in 2013, incinerating 47 people and destroying much of the small town.
And those 25 million don’t include those who live near train routes carrying the many other hazardous chemicals (like vinyl chloride and chlorine) that are routinely transported by train through populated areas.
Take chlorine for example.
In January 2005, outside of Graniteville, South Carolina, a freight train carrying chlorine gas struck a parked train killing nine workers, the train’s engineer and eight workers in an adjacent Avondale Mills factory. At least 200 others, nearly all of them sickened by a toxic cloud. The operator of that train: Norfolk Southern. Had the train derailed near a major urban area, the deaths may have been in the hundreds — or more.
EPA data shows that there is some kind of significant toxic release — through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills — every two days in this country.
And in one of the more obvious statements I’ve seen, Vice notes that “Together, these news stories make it appear that crashes involving hazardous material are happening all the time across the country. One reason for that may be that crashes involving hazardous waste actually are happening all the time, across the country. ”
They just don’t receive much scrutiny as there aren’t often larger news stories to which they can be connected. Toxic material is the ambient noise to American capitalism.
Data compiled by the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Census Bureau shows nearly 3 billion tons of hazardous material were moved across the United States in 2017, the most recent year for which data has been compiled.
According to data compiled by USA Today from federal reports, there have been more than 5,000 hazardous chemical leaks and spills from trains over the past decade. In 2022 alone, there were 337 incidents, enough for one to occur almost every day. As for derailments specifically, there have been 110 of those that resulted in a hazardous spill since 2015, according to data shared with Motherboard by the Federal Railroad Administration.
And it’s not just trains. There were 120 truck crashes in 2019 across the U.S. that involved hazardous material, according to federal data, or roughly one every three days.
Train derailments involving hazardous chemicals are hardly rare as a Vice article points out.
A Tuesday crash in Arizona, just southeast of Tucson, involving a commercial truck carrying 2000 pounds of nitric acid, led to plumes of bright orange smoke wafting onto a highway, according to Newsweek. Arizona’s Department of Public Safety evacuated everyone within a half mile of the incident. An environmental consultant who contracts for the state told Newsweek that the risks would end “relatively quickly, in a matter of hours after the spill” because nitric acid dissolves upon contact with the air. On Thursday, another train derailment occurred outside Detroit with one car carrying hazardous material. The train was also run by Norfolk Southern, the company that ran the train in Ohio.
But trains aren’t the main problem, according to experts
There are close to 12,000 facilities across the nation that have on site “extremely hazardous chemicals in amounts that could harm people, the environment, or property if accidentally released”, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued last year. These facilities include petroleum refineries, chemical manufacturers, cold storage facilities, fertilizer plants and water and wastewater treatment plants, among others.
EPA data shows that there is some kind of significant toxic release — through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills — every two days in this country.
In the first seven weeks of 2023 alone, there were more than 30 incidents recorded by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, roughly one every day and a half. Last year the coalition recorded 188, up from 177 in 2021. The group has tallied more than 470 incidents since it started counting in April 2020.
The incidents logged by the coalition range widely in severity but each involves the accidental release of chemicals deemed to pose potential threats to human and environmental health.
The coalition has counted 10 rail-related chemical contamination events over the last two and a half years, including the derailment in East Palestine
It’s unclear what long term health effects the chemical residue will have on the citizens of East Palestine or those down river. Although EPA has declared the air safe, residents have reported strange smells, headaches, coughs, rashes and dead animals. Many of the residents get their water from shallow wells and it’s unclear how much groundwater has been contaminated.
And it’s not just the individual chemicals that are of concern, according to Gerald Poje, an expert in environmental health and former member of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board: “Chemical compounds can interact with one another in complex ways and persist after burning: ‘There could be hundreds of different breakdown products that still remain, for which we have often very poor toxicological profiles,’ Dr. Poje said. ‘We’re oftentimes in this unknown place.’”
Weak Regulatory Protections
In the United States, we live under a capitalist system where the main — if not only — goal of companies is to increase shareholder profits. There may be nothing wrong with that, but if — and only if — there also exists a strong countervailing force in order to ensure that the drive for profit doesn’t endanger workers, communities, the environment (our land, water, air and climate), and ultimately, the entire economy.
That countervailing force is strong regulation and well funded agencies with modern laws to enforce those regulations in a way that will deter companies from unrestrained exploitation of those workers, communities and the environment.
Anyone who hasn’t been living in a shack in the woods for the last century or two knows that the battle between corporate “freedom” and regulatory protections is the forever war that will rage with increased intensity now that the courts have become increasing filled with Trumpist judges and justices who feel that regulation is unconstitutional — judges backed by a Congress filled with politicians (of both parties) who feel that American businesses are over-regulated.
DOT: A Captured Agency?
Regulatory protections are authorized by Congress and developed and enforced by Executive Branch agencies. Sometimes that works well, but often not.
Rail safety is regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), an office of the Department of Transportation, which is currently headed by Pete Buttigieg. The FRA has a mixed record of regulating rail safety.
And it’s not just Pete Buttigieg’s fault.
Like the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation is, to a certain extent, a “captured” agency. By that I mean a Cabinet agency that struggles with the conflicting responsibilities of promoting and protecting an industry at the same time it’s supposed to be regulating that same industry.
Sometimes with disastrous consequences as we saw in 2012 after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe when America learned that regulation of off-shore oil drilling had been lax because the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) was in charge of both promoting the offshore oil drilling industry and regulating the safety of offshore drilling.
And safety lost.
The Department of Transportation is, to a certain extent, a “captured” agency: That is a Cabinet agency that struggles with the conflicting responsibilities of promoting an industry at the same time it’s supposed to be regulating that same industry.
Similarly, the “The Federal Railroad Administration’s mission is to enable the safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods for a strong America, now and in the future.”
And who generally wins when “safety” conflicts with “efficient movement?”
Weakening Rail Safety
You will read this over and over, and you will still not believe it. In the year 2023, the trains in this country still operate using Civil War-era braking systems. We have the technological ability to improve those system, but the railroads don’t want to use it.
The safest modern brakes are electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems that stop trains faster than the Civil War-era braking systems that the railroad industry currently uses. Current braking systems receive orders from the lead locomotive and use air pressure to slow the cars sequentially from front to back. The problem with that is that derailments are more likely when the front cars slow while the rear cars continue at the same speed. Especially if the rear cars are heavier than the front cars.
ECP brakes, on the other hand, use an electric signal to slow all of the cars simultaneously, which not only enables train operators to stop faster, but they also decrease the chance of a pileups, and reduce the number of punctured cars in an accident.
Following a major increase in derailments of trains carrying crude oil and hazardous chemicals, including a New Jersey train crash that leaked the same toxic chemical as in Ohio, the Obama administration was set to require ECP brakes on all trains carrying hazardous materials. But the railroads complained that ECP brakes were too expensive and took too long to repair, so the administration caved in and in 2015 watered down the proposed regulation so that it only applied only to certain “high-hazard flammable trains” carrying at least 20 consecutive cars filled with liquids like crude oil — like the train that caused the 2013 Lac Megantic disaster. Rail cars carrying toxic, but not flammable, materials were left out, along with trains that mixed the flammable cars throughout the train.
But the railroads complained that ECP brakes were too expensive and took too long to repair, so the Obama administration caved in and watered down the proposed regulation
But even that watered down version wasn’t good enough for the railroads who continued to lobby against the rule, using the usual business ploy of inflating the costs and underestimating the benefits. The Trump administration repealed the part of the rule that applied to ECP breaks in 2017.
And to add insult to catastrophe, Trump, in an effort to boost the export of natural gas, the Trump administration lifted a ban on transporting liquified natural gas by rail in 2020. Probably not a good idea considering that environmental groups estimate that just 22 railcars of LNG hold the same amount of energy as nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The administration also issued a special permit for a project that would transport LNG 200 miles between Pennsylvania and New Jersey through major cities like Philadelphia and Trenton. Late last year, NRDC and a coalition of other groups called on U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to follow through on his proposal to reinstate the ban.
Because of the watering down of the Obama era regulation, the train that derailed East Palestine would not have been classified as a “high-hazard flammable train,” even if Trump hadn’t repealed the original regulation. Instead, the East Palestine train was considered a “mixed freight train” because it contained only 3 placarded Class 3 flammable liquids cars.
At this point, it is unclear whether the breaking mechanism had anything to do with the East Palestine derailment, although some experts believe that ECP brakes could have stopped the train more quickly and safely, and reduced the damage.
The rail industry did not win every battle, however
Another Obama-era railroad rule appears to have helped.
That policy required the use of stronger cars for the transportation of crude oil and other explosive liquids.
Three of the cars that derailed in East Palestine were the stronger type, according to a list provided by the N.T.S.B. One of them, carrying propylene glycol, a chemical used in many products, including pharmaceuticals, antifreeze and perfumes, was not breached. But a car that did not have the enhanced specifications, carrying the same material, was breached, according to the agency’s list. The less protected cars also carried vinyl chloride and benzene.
PSR: Deterioration of our Rail System
During the furor over the pending rail strike last year, we discussed Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) and its effect on rail workers. Basicially, the goal of PSR is to wring every bit of “excess” spending out the system, to do more with less. And how do you do more with less?
Something’s got to give: mainly safety and workers’ sanity. And longer trains, heavier trains and less time spent on maintenance.
The rail carriers have collectively cut 30% of their workforce in the past five or six years alone. For workers, that meant that staffing was so tight, there was no room for sick leave. President Biden and Congress apparently thought that was a small sacrifice to make for the health of the economy when last Fall they forced a contract down the throats of rail workers despite the fact that unions representing a majority of rail workers had voted to reject the contract.
Maintenance: A Waste of Money?
Most people don’t bother to change light bulbs until they burn out. And you are unlikely to replace the washer on your faucet until it starts leaking. This is called “run to failure” maintenance. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
But if you’re running a refinery, steel mill — or a railroad — just letting things break down before you fix them isn’t a very safe way to operate. High reliability organizations have strong preventive maintenance programs and a major element of OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard and EPA’s Risk Management Program is “Mechanical Integrity.” Mechanical integrity aims to prevent catastrophic incidents by ensuring that chemical releases and other incidents are prevented through the proper maintenance of equipment — before it breaks down.
Lack of preventive maintenance was a significant root cause of the 2013 Lac Megantic disaster.
Because of PSR, the railroads seem to be going in the wrong direction according to rail workers.
Car inspections have experienced some of the biggest cuts. Norfolk Southern management has gradually reduced the amount of time workers are allowed to spend inspecting trains for defects before they leave rail yards. About seven years ago, according to Motherboard’s previous reporting and confirmed by Whitaker, management set a recommendation that workers spend no more than two and a half minutes per car. In recent years, that time limit has dwindled to less than 90 seconds per car—not enough time, workers say, to actually inspect anything, when cars can be up to 100 feet in length.
Because of staff cuts, workers who used to inspect hundreds of cars a day now have to inspect a thousand or more, according to multiple Norfolk Southern employees Motherboard interviewed in 2021. They said that managers will pressure workers not to report safety defects they discover, because fixing them will hurt PSR metrics such as the amount of time trains spend in the terminal, which, under PSR’s philosophy, is supposed to be as little as possible. But, if they don’t report a defect and something catastrophic happens on the rails, workers feel vulnerable, believing the company will try to pin responsibility on individual workers not following official protocol. As a result, workers feel they operate under two different, often contradictory rulebooks, one official to maintain a pretense of safety and one unofficial intended to keep trains moving. In this sense, one mechanic who worked for Norfolk Southern for 13 years, told Motherboard that workers can “kind of be screwed one way or the other.”
According to Matt Weaver, a 28 year railroader and now Ohio legislative director of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of the Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, preventive maintenance is an antiquated philosophy.
We had the bridge gang I hired on, we had six guys. Now it’s three or four. There’s not enough guys to do the work. And the work is being deferred till there’s an emergency when there’s a disaster. “Oh yeah, we’ll fix it now.” But preventative maintenance is not as popular with the shareholders as it used to be in the sixties and seventies.
Longer Trains are not Safer Trains
Train length has also increased. Because no matter how long the train is, it is staffed by the same number of rail workers. So obviously longer trains are more cost efficient. Some trains now stretch more than two miles. But longer trains are not safer trains:
From 2008 to 2017, the average train length grew by 25%, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. One of the railroads studied regularly ran trains as long as 3 miles, the report found. The FRA does not currently place limits on freight train length.
The problems with longer trains are familiar to rail workers and government regulators. The employees say there were concerns among those working on the train over what they believed was the train’s excessive length and weight — 151 cars, 9,300 feet long, 18,000 tons — before it reached East Palestine, which contributed to both the initial breakdown and the derailment.
Norfolk Southern was the leader in this category as of 2021, with an average train length of over 7,000 feet — which is 1.3 miles, or more than one hundred rail cars. The Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio was 9,300 feet long, or nearly 1.8 miles.
“Our push for efficiency led to record train weight and record train length in the quarter,” a Norfolk Southern executive bragged on a 2021 earnings call.
On the Other Hand, Profits
So, to summarize, we have longer, heavier trains carrying more hazardous materials, safeguarded by inferior antique braking systems, operated and maintained by fewer and fewer workers who are suffering from more and more burnout. What could go wrong?
The rate of accidents on Norfolk Southern’s railway increased in each of the last four years, according to a recent company presentation. The record has worsened as executives at Norfolk Southern and other railroads have been telling investors on Wall Street that they can bolster their profit margins by keeping a lid on costs. At the same time, railway companies have lobbied against new rules aimed at making trains safer.
Norfolk Southern, which earned more than $3 billion last year, invested close to $2 billion in its railways and operations, up a third from 2021. But over the past five years, it paid shareholders nearly $18 billion through stock buybacks and dividends — twice as much as the amount it invested in its railways and operations. Other large railways have paid out billions to their shareholders, too, and their shares have done better than the wider stock market over the last decade.
Grab some popcorn. Or a strong drink. And come back for Part 2: East Palestine: Politics and the Road Ahead