American railroads’ toxic pollution of the air, water, soil and of US politics

On February 3, a 1.8 mile long train run by Norfolk Southern derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. It was known at the time that the train was carrying the highly toxic vinyl chloride. Norfolk Southern waited nine days, until February 12, to release a list of all the other chemicals that train was carrying. Tens of millions of Americans eyes were elsewhere on that day, which just so happned to be Super Bowl Sunday. What a coincidence!

In another sign of its contempt for people, Northfolk Southern has offered the town of E. Palestine $25,000 as a recompense. That is $5.30 per resident. That will get you a rotisserie-style chicken six inch Subway sandwich in Ohio (average price in that state: $5.29), but it won’t come close to getting you the foot-long, which is $8.49 in Ohio.

But that is the least of the issues. Let’s start with where things are at right now: The serious health concerns.

Like a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb, the toxic cloud spread for miles. Nobody really knows how far its toxic effects will be spread. Not yet, anyway.

Burn off the vinyl chloride
Authorities had decided to burn off the vinyl chloride in order to prevent an explosion. The result sent a toxic smoke plume into the air. Residents within a half mile of the accident were ordered to evacuate for a few days. Then the all-clear sign was given and the residents were allowed to return. They were told that things were safe, but just in case, authorities tested free of charge the well water of those within the evacuation zone. But nearly 250 miles away, the Cincinnati water authorities shut off the water intake from the Ohio River because they had found vinyl chloride in the river water there.

Immediate and long term health effects
CNN reported that more than two weeks after the train wreck residents were complaining of a “growing number” of health issues including headaches, nausea, rashes and trouble breathing. The key here is “growing number” – in other words, the problems seem to be getting worse. According to the report, “The EPA is offering indoor air screenings for any resident within the evacuation zone.” In other words, if you live more than a half mile away from the wreck, you are s.o.l.

The rash on this child’s hands may be a sign of more serious long term health effects.

Maybe even more serious is the longer term possible health issues. For example, the burning of vinyl chloride can release dioxins. This is the chemical that is in Agent Orange, which is the defiliant that the US military dumped over Vietnam when it went to war against those people. To this day, Vietnam is plagued with birth defects as a result of exposure. US Vietnam vets are also suffering from exposure, including birth defects of their children. But there may be other effects also: I had a friend who was one such vet. He was extremely nervous. He said he’d never been like that before going to Vietnam and he believed the change was due to his exposure to Agent Orange. Having been stationed on a ship, he’d not seen actual battle so it was not PTSD, or “battle fatigue”. That is far from proof that his condition was caused by Agent Orange exposure, but it certainly opens the door to that suspicion, given everything else.

What are “unsafe” levels?
Another problem is this: Federal authorities set levels of exposure to toxic chemicals that they consider to be unsafe. At present, science operates on the basis that “the dosage makes the poison”. In other words, the greater the exposure, the greater the danger, and below a certain level the danger is so minimal that it can be discounted. Here, we should turn to (now deceased) environmental toxicologist Dr. Theo Colborn. In her invaluable book Our Stolen Future (which was translated into 28 different languages), Colborn explains that that is not necessarily so, especially when it comes to intergenerational effects – in other words, birth defects. Colborn – who received her Ph.D. in zoology with minors in epidemiology, toxicology and water chemistry at the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison – explains that the system that controls fetal development is the endocrine system, which produces the various hormones. Minute amounts – one or two parts per trillion – of synthetic hormones or hormone blockers, can have massive effects.

Dr. Theo Colborn – ground breaking toxicologist and scientific pioneer.

Another point that Colborn made was that a different approach to environmental science is required. In many cases it’s impossible to prove certain levels of certain chemicals cause certain effects in the real world, especially when we come to inter-generational effects such as birth defects. That’s because there are so many different factors that cannot be controlled. So Colborn advocated that if the known science plus apparent results seem to indicate a danger, then we should err on the side of caution.

Dr. Colborn has died, but she left behind a web site called endocrinedisruption https://endocrinedisruption.org/ that still has valuable information. I also urge people to read Colborn’s Our Stolen Future to get a deeper understanding and to be able to more fully answer some of the “safety” claims. But the main point is that when authorities say the levels are safe, they are really talking about your chances of getting cancer, and not much more.

Big Government” and ECP brakes
Some are blaming “big government”, but what does that really mean? What is the reality?

The whole attack on “big government” in reality aims at weakening any environmental or safety regulations. Consider the safety regulations for the railroads: Levernews has an invaluable history of that issue. Today’s railroads use a braking system that stems from the US Civil War days. Basically, when the engineer hits the breaks, the cars brake sequentially, from the first car to the last, so the latter cars continue to push the front cars until the brakes hit there. Levernews quotes a railroad executive: “Trains are like giant Slinkies. When you have that back of the train running into the front of the train, they can actually push cars out, cause a derailment and cause a hell of a mess.”’ It’s not as if a better method has not been developed. In fact, Norfolk Southern itself bragged in 2007 that it had developed an “electronically controlled pneumatic” braking system (ECP) that could stop a train 60% faster, and without that “slinky” effect, because all the cars brakes would operate at once through an electronic signal. In the years that followed, the railroads spent $191 billion on stock buybacks and shareholder dividends instead of spending to install ECP brakes. Why? As the Association of American Railroads (to which Norfolk Southern belongs) testified before congress, their “industry to this day has not indentified business benefits that would justify transitioning to ECP brakes.” In other words, installing ECP brakes would not benefit the bottom line – profits.

Why didn’t the government require installation of ECP brakes?

Well, in fact under Obama the National Transportation and Safety Board did, to a very limited extent. They established a regulation that trains of over a certain length carrying a certain amount of certain toxic chemicals must have ECP brakes. The regulation was so weak that Norfolk Southern would not have been required to use ECP brakes on that particular train, but at least the regulation was something.

Then Trump came into office. Among other things, he conducted a war against government regulation of big business. He rolled back over 100 environmental regulations, some of which protected our water supply – the very water supply upon which E. Palestine and Cincinnati residents rely. He rolled back all sorts of health and safety regulations. And his administration eliminated that minimal Obama-era regulation for ECP brakes. That is what the war on “big government” is really all about.

Lawsuits and US Supreme Court
Today, Norfolk Southern will be facing thousands of lawsuits for negligence. They will surely answer, “we did nothing illegal. Everything we did was within federal regulations.” And that is true. What won’t be mentioned in

Railroads political contributions. Source: opensecrets.org

court is that they and the railroad industry were the ones to weaken and even eliminate the regulations! Take a look at the statistics on the left. In 2018 they donated a total of $8.5 million to the Republicans and Democrats, of which 62% went to their preferred party, the Republicans – who just happened to be in the White House at that time. In 2022, after the Democrats captured the White House, the railroads dropped their total donations to $5.4 millon, of which a mere 57% went to the Republicans and 43% went to the Democrats.

There is another way that the deck has been stacked – through stacking the US Supreme Court. The poster child for the Trump/corporate-controlled Supreme Court is Neil Gorsuch. Before he reached the Supreme Court, Gorsuch was – or should have been – infamous for his 2009 “frozen trucker” ruling. In that case, he ruled that a trucking company was justified for firing a driver who abandoned his truck rather than freezing to death.

And what is likely to happen if the Biden administration does try to reinstate the Obama era ECP brake requirement, or even a stronger one? It’s a near certainty that the railroads will challenge it in court. That’s because in a 2022 ruling, the Trump/corporate majority of the Supreme Court made a ruling that throws open to question whether a regulatory body like the National Transportation Safety Board even has the power to establish any regulations. That ruling seems to say (although it is not certain) that any new such regulations must be passed through congress. It is impossible for congress to pass bills on every single health and safety issue that arises. That is what the regulatory bodies are for, so the effect of this ruling is likely to be that corporations are given a free hand to roll right over all health and safety concerns in the interest of “business benefits”, AKA profits.

Railroad workers
Another whole way of looking at the issue is through the eyes of the railroad workers themselves. According to AP News from 2017-2021, the railroad companies eliminated 22% of its work force. Among other things, they apparently moved to replace human inspection of the cars with electronic inspection. The federal railroad administration said that “data so far does not show the new operating model is unsafe.” The unions disputed this. As AP news reported, “Every time the wheels come off the rail, it’s kind of like buying a lottery ticket to the big disaster,” said Jason Cox with the carmen division of the Transportation Communications Union.’ This may be directly related to this train wreck since it seems that the entire disaster started when a wheel bearing went bad and caused a fire. Had Norfolk Southern not so reduced its staffing, we must ask whether better human inspection would have caught that defect beforehand.

Anti-labor Trump was of course not going to change that. But Biden claims he is pro-labor. He showed just how much he is pro-labor when he prohibited the railraod unions from going on strike to stop their members from being worked nearly to death.

Political Conclusions
From the longer term environmental effects, to the health issues to the questions of railroad safety and the working conditions of railroad workers, this disaster is far from resolved. We should draw a lesson from the past. In 2020, this country was rocked from coast to coast by the protests over the murder of George Floyd. But we don’t have to only look into the past: Today, at this very moment, France is being nearly shut down entirely by millions of workers protesting attacks on their retirement system. The criminal actions of the railroad companies is every bit as serious and in some ways even more so. A new similar protest movement is needed, starting with the demand that Norfolk Southern pay all costs involved in their criminal behavior. That includes paying for loss of housing, for the residents to hire their own scientific and health experts, and for everything else. Such a movement can actually shut down Norfolk Southern – and the railroads entirely. The railroad unions, together with the entire labor movement, should spearhead such a campaign, and link it with their demands for better working conditions.

But that is not all. This whole criminal disaster is a poster child for the failure of the U.S. “two party system”. While the Republicans are many times worse, both parties simply represent Corporate America as far as profits are concerned. US workers are the only workers in the industrialized world that have never had our own party – a mass working class party. It has never been needed more than today. It is exactly through such a protest movement in the streets, communities and work places that such a party can be born.

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