In 1863, the transcontinental railroad broke ground. This transformational piece of infrastructure allowed the United States to flourish industrially and become the economic powerhouse we recognize today. Since the 1860s, rail technology has grown exponentially faster and more efficient, meaning that trains can transport far more cargo. Today, most railcars carry around 100 cars of cargo, mostly coal, lumber, or other raw industrial materials. But in certain cases, they can contain toxic or dangerous chemicals and substances.
A Norfolk Southern Railway freight train bound for Pennsylvania from Illinois was one of these cargo trains containing dangerous substances. The train in question was carrying a substance known as vinyl chloride, along with other dangerous substances such as benzene, butoxyethanol, and butyl acrylate. One common attribute of these substances is their toxicity to human beings. Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen, a cancer-causing chemical pollutant that is commonly found near landfills and at one time was used for refrigeration. In the 1970s, vinyl chloride was discovered to be carcinogenic, and was banned for use as a household refrigerant and aerosol.
Vinyl chloride itself isn’t banned, however; it is still being used for plastics manufacturing,while posing the same carcinogenic threat. The danger of these chemicals is so great, in fact, that their transport is often banned in other nations due to the extreme threat they pose to humansUsually, they are produced on site where needed.
So, what happened to the 129,000 gallons of vinyl chloride being transported on this freight train? On February 3rd, 2023, the cars spilled 305,350 gallons of these dangerous substances, including vinyl chloride, in a derailment of 38 cars out of 151 total in the town of East Palestine, Ohio. Derailment is already a major hazard due to it blocking railways, damaging cargo, and harming crew or passersby, but toxic chemical spills in addition to derailments only heightens the potential danger. In the case of this derailment, the public health, social, and political complications in the United States became readily apparent.
Public health noticeably becomes far worse of an issue when political issues get in the way of a proper, fast response. In the East Palestine spill, the vinyl chloride was not disposed of properly, with Norfolk Southern and first responders deciding to burn the chemicals. This ‘controlled’ burning resulted in an explosion, causing a plume of smoke containing these toxic chemicals to be released into the air that traveled along windstreams, emitting dangerous air contaminants to cover parts of Ohio, New York, and several other northeastern states, including lower areas of Canada.
This response was approved by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, stating that the alternatives would potentially be more dangerous– though this response presented just the same danger, with one derailed car experiencing a temperature shift that could’ve sent shrapnel flying up to a mile away. One reason for this uncalculated response is the lack of federal intervention. An offer for a national guard and FEMA response came from President Biden’s administration approximately 3 and a half weeks after the initial incident. To complicate matters further, Governor DeWine declined this aid in a stunt widely believed to be rooted in partisan politics.
Much of the criticism of the Biden administration’s response also lies in the prioritizing of their national security goals–as East Palestine Mayor Trent Conway noted on a Fox News segment, “So … he can send every agency he wants to but I found that out this morning and one of the briefings that he was in the Ukraine giving millions of dollars away to people over there, not to us and I’m furious.” Biden had been in Europe prior to his administration’s response to speak about the war in Ukraine, as well as solidarity with Poland–making many politicians, particularly republicans, question the administration’s priorities.
Adding fuel to this political fire, former President Donald Trump visited the town of East Palestine before President Biden and directed more criticism towards the White House. In response to Trump’s visit, as well as the criticism they faced, the Biden administration pointed at Trump-era railway regulatory rollbacks that may have potentially led to this derailment, such as no longer requiring state governments to ensure that railways are being inspected regularly or that trains are operating with two crew members at all times.
The blame has been placed on both administrations for the crash in the first place, with special emphasis on the Biden plan to end the railway strikes of 2022. While this plan saw some union concerns met such as increased pay, many important safety considerations were not: staffing, paid time-off, and crew-member wellness checks were not considered in the plan. Many argue that because of the understaffing and tired crew, the overheated wheel bearings that caused this derailment were not identified in an appropriate safety and equipment check.
Unions have for years now been demanding the increase of crew presence on board, citing that there is less potential for safety flaws to go unrecognized, as well as more experience on the train to prevent safety flaws in the first place. Unions argue that either trains need to get shorter, or crew needs to get bigger, or these kinds of derailments will continue to occur. Even though unions have been repeating these points, all previous administrations have at best presented cursory “fixes” to the problems, citing that the supply chain cannot stop, and using current anti-strike laws like the Railway Labor Act to prevent these safety concerns from actually being addressed in legislation.
Ultimately, this still ongoing public safety issue is a conglomeration of many consecutive political failures, such as the weakening of state regulatory requirements, safety considerations going unchecked, slow responses, and one major and avoidable issue: politicking. The partisan divide between a deeply republican Ohio and a democrat-led federal government turned a potentially great response to an incredibly dangerous situation into a slow, uncoordinated, and poorly executed one. Biden’s response will continue to be criticized, especially because of the $2 billion aid package to Ukraine announced only 3 days after his official pledge of support for Ohio’s state government But Ohio is not entirely devoid of criticism either. Governor DeWine declining federal support as an overt political move has resulted in a far worse situation for the citizens of East Palestine, who for the larger part of a month have been without clean drinking water, breathable air, and basic necessities.