After Toxic Train Wreck, Residents Demand Answers

by Otis Grotwohl, published on Workers World, February 22, 2023

Weeks after the disaster, more terrifying information is coming out about the toxic train derailment Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio. The two-mile-long, 150-car train, owned by Norfolk Southern, weighed 18,000 tons and was carrying hazardous material when it jackknifed as a result of a broken axle.

Following the “controlled release” of the dangerous gases on Feb. 6, which produced a mushroom cloud of poisonous smoke, the public was informed there were more chemicals released than originally revealed. At first, people were only told about vinyl chloride, which is clinically proven to cause cancer. When vinyl chloride combusts, it turns into phosgene, a gas that was used as a weapon during the first imperialist world war.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency later stated that additional hazardous materials were released into the air, including ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, all of which can cause health complications. (Allegheny Front, Feb. 13) Cars carrying these chemicals were marked “nonhazardous.”

Residents in and around East Palestine have publicly reported having respiratory issues, sore throats, headaches, bloodshot eyes and skin rashes, and they complain that the air smells like burning plastic. There have been alarming accounts of dead wildlife, including fish and birds, as well as farm animals and even family pets. Meanwhile, people are being told by state and EPA officials that the air and water are “safe,” according to their “tests,” but local residents don’t trust these tests.

Many residents of the town are afraid to be in their own homes, but they have nowhere else to go.

People from the community packed a local high school gymnasium Feb. 15 to attend what they thought would be a meeting with Norfolk Southern representatives, where they could ask questions. The company backed out at the last minute and sent an email that read, “After consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event, stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties.” (Reuters, Feb. 15).

The company’s failure to show up sent a clear message that they don’t care about the well-being of anyone in that community. Company representatives eventually met with local government officials but still refuse to meet with the people most impacted.

In a disgraceful attempt to save face and prevent lawsuits, Norfolk Southern bosses have offered people from the evacuation zone a measly $1,000 each as “inconvenience” pay. Residents are being advised by local attorneys not to accept the money, as it could jeopardize future lawsuits. The small amount of chump change Norfolk Southern calls “inconvenience” pay is not enough to cover the hospital bills that will be forced upon many East Palestine residents in years to come, let alone even enough to cover long-term evacuation needs.

Uncertain consequences beyond East Palestine

East Palestine borders western Pennsylvania along the Ohio River and is a stone’s throw from West Virginia. Several states in the Ohio River Basin, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, rely on drinking water from the Ohio River, which flows south of East Palestine.

There were low levels of industrial chemicals reported in the Ohio River, 300 miles north of Cincinnati, not long after the accident. A river plume of butyl acrylate was found near Gallipolis, Ohio, a small river community 225 miles south of East Palestine. (WLWT-5, Feb. 16) This discovery prompted residents there and on the West Virginia side to try to find alternative sources of water.

Residents of Wheeling and Moundsville, West Virginia, posted pictures of discoloration of the Ohio River on social media. Some individuals have taken video footage of themselves raking sticks in creeks to show how the chemicals form an oily, rainbow-colored film in the water.

Many people who live along the Ohio River — a river lined with coal, chemical and ethane cracker plants — are not surprised that such a disaster occurred, knowing of the combination of the poor infrastructure and deliberately weakened regulation of the railroad industry.

In response to the U.S. government’s slow, and callous reaction, activists in the Ohio Valley have formed a progressive, multinational coalition known as River Valley Organizing. The organization started on social media and has organized community-based teach-ins, informational pickets and bottled water distributions alongside the Ohio River and will be conducting independent tests, according to their Facebook page.

Workers World spoke with Rich Olivito, an RVO supporter and longtime anti-racist activist from Steubenville, Ohio, who said,

“There is a long history of Ohio River communities, on both sides of the river, being subjected to extreme negligence when it comes to exposing the citizens to seriously toxic and highly carcinogenic substances. Our valley and region has also been the subject of a 30-year Harvard University cancer cluster study, which some local physicians have referenced publicly.”

Capitalism is ultimately responsible

One week after the catastrophe in East Palestine, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in southeast Michigan, where 30 train cars fell off the track. Fortunately, there were no reported injuries or hazardous material involved, but many people are now skeptical, as a result of the blatantly dishonest response to the Feb. 3 derailment.

Union railroad workers, particularly members of Railroad Workers United, blame the company’s reduction in staff and safety inspections for the accident. Until six years ago, there was a requirement for trains carrying hazardous flammable materials to have Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brakes, to help prevent crashes. In 2017, the Trump administration lifted ECP requirements, and President Joe Biden’s administration has continued the same deregulation policies as his predecessor.

Biden’s pro-company bias became apparent when, a few months ago, the administration sided with the railroad industry against union demands for safe staffing and paid sick days in their union contracts.

Railroad workers are not the only people who blame profit-driven deregulation for recent derailments. Steven Ditmeyer, a former top official at the Federal Railroad Administration, shared his thoughts on the derailment in East Palestine with the investigative news outlet The Lever.Would ECP brakes have reduced the severity of this accident? Yes,” Ditmeyer said. (Newsweek, Feb. 14)

Some would argue the Norfolk Southern train that wrecked in East Palestine was unfit for travel when it left Madison, Illinois, on the evening of Feb. 1. Footage taken by a security camera from an equipment plant in Salem, Ohio, 20 miles outside East Palestine, showed sparks and flames under one of the train cars as it passed the plant. (cbsnews.com, Feb. 13)

Sarah Feinberg, who served as administrator of the FRA from 2015 to 2017, blames deregulation, in particular the scheme of “Precision Scheduled Railroading” for the recent derailments. PSR has been widely adopted across the railroad industry and is intended to “increase efficiency” and “reduce costs,” i.e., help the railroad magnates rake in huge profits.

In a recent interview Feinberg indicated, “When I was FRA administrator, I was not happy with the lengths of the trains, and they were 80 or 90 cars long. This train was 50% longer.” (cbsnews.com, Feb. 17) Feinberg’s honest assessment helps explain why there are more train accidents than years before.

Capitalism is a system driven by the profit motive, and until it is replaced, the likelihood of safety regulations being reintroduced is doubtful. Many RWU and rail union members and many others in the labor movement have been putting forth the bold demand to “nationalize the railroads.”

People in East Palestine and along the Ohio River are witnessing the cruelty of capitalism firsthand. They are turning to organizations like RWU and RVO for answers and assistance, because they justifiably feel like they have been abandoned by the government and lied to by the media.

The people of the Ohio River Valley have more in common with the people of Türkiye and Syria, who are facing a severe crisis from the recent 7.8 earthquake, than they do with any representative of either the Biden or Trump administrations. Workers are realizing that billions are being wasted to prolong a proxy war against Russia, but it took nearly two weeks before the U.S. government even addressed the Feb. 3 derailment.

U.S. capitalism is responsible for the accident, along with all of the consequences for years to come.

*Featured Image: AP Photo from the Cincinnati Enquirer


Otis Grotwohl grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and has spent seven years as a labor representative in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Both communities are geographically close to East Palestine.

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