The East Palestine train derailment, an example of corporate power and greed

Bob Sheak, March 2, 2023


This post reviews salient aspects of what is known about the train derailment in East Palestine, the causes, the effects, and relevant responses by Norfolk Southern, the federal government, people in the affected community, some experts, and unions. The principal culprit is a political-economic system that is grounded in corporate power.

The Derailment

On Friday, February 3, 2023, a two-mile long freight train operated by Norfolk Southern Corporation crashed in a massive train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a town of 4,700 residents (

Of the 149 railcars, 38 cars derailed and a fire ensued which damaged an additional 12 cars. There were 20 total hazardous material cars in the train (

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report on the crash on Feb. 23, as reported by Jessica Corbet (,)


In one of her “letters to an American,” historian Heather Cox Richardson points out that the NTSB is not a part of the Department of Transportation but rather is an “independent agency charged with investigating civil transportation accidents” as well as being “in charge of investigating the release of hazardous materials during transportation” (Substack, Feb. 26, 2023). Richardson also notes, “Nine NTSB investigators and four engineers in labs have been involved in the accident review. They have reviewed footage of the derailment, interviewed train staff, and examined the train event recorder, a device similar to a black box on an airplane.”

Preliminary report

Corbett describes some of what the NTSB’s preliminary report includes.

“Norfolk Southern Railway’s (NS) train 32N featured two head-end locomotives, a distributed power locomotive, and 149 railcars—20 of which were transporting combustible liquids as well as flammable liquids and gas, including vinyl chloride.

“Thirty-eight cars derailed, including 11 containing hazardous materials “that subsequently ignited, fueling fires that damaged an additional 12 non-derailed railcars….”

The fire and controlled burn of chemicals

An out-of-control fire raged for days until, as fears of an explosion of increased, crews conducted a “controlled” burn of five tank cars containing vinyl chloride and other flammable toxic chemicals “releasing a huge mushroom cloud of fire and smoke” and spewing toxic chemicals into the surrounding air, water, and soil. As reported by Jacey Fortin (, the toxic chemicals spewed into the surrounding air, water, and soil included:

“Butyl acrylate, a clear liquid with a fruity odor that can cause breathing difficulty and skin irritation.

“Ethylhexyl acrylate, a clear liquid that is used to make paints and plastics and can irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory tract.

“Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, a colorless liquid that is used to make paints and varnish. In an experiment that exposed people to a high level of the chemical for several hours, some subjects reported irritation of the nose and eyes, headaches and vomiting.

“Vinyl chloride, a colorless gas used in making plastic products. The compound, which the E.P.A. has said was on five of the train cars, was of particular concern to authorities in the days following the derailment. The gas has what toxicologists describe as a ‘mild, sweet odor’ and can cause dizziness, headaches and drowsiness when inhaled in the short term, and a rare form of liver cancer after chronic exposure.

“When burned, vinyl chloride decomposes into gases that include hydrogen chloride and phosgene. Hydrogen chloride has a strong, irritating odor and is corrosive to any tissue that comes in contact with it, according to the federal toxic substances registry. Phosgene smells like freshly cut hay and can cause coughing and wheezing if inhaled.”

An overheated wheel bearing

Corbett quotes Allan Zarembski, director of the Railway Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware, The Washington Post reported Thursday that “an overheated bearing is perhaps the most common cause of a failed axle in a derailment.”

“In recent years,” the newspaper added, “railroads—including Norfolk Southern—have added sensors on tracks that measure the temperature of bearings to determine whether overheating could pose a derailment risk.”

“Train 32N, which Norfolk Southern workers say they knew was unsafe, passed three hot bearing detector (HBD) systems—designed to detect overheating and provide audible real-time warnings to crews—before it derailed, the NTSB report says. At milepost 79.9, the suspect bearing from car 23 was 38°F above ambient temperature; at milepost 69.01, it was 103°F; at milepost 49.81, it was 253°F.

“NS crews are supposed to stop and inspect potential problems when alerts indicate that there is ‘a difference between bearings on the same axle greater than or equal to 115°F,” or there is a bearing between 170°F and 200°F, the publication notes. If the recorded temperature is greater than 200°F, the instruction is to ‘set out’ the railcar.

Ineffective braking system

“In this case, the HBD system at milepost 49.81 ‘transmitted a critical audible alarm message instructing the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle,’ the document details. ‘The train engineer increased the dynamic brake application to further slow and stop the train. During this deceleration, an automatic emergency brake application initiated, and train 32N came to a stop.’” By this time, 38 trains had crashed into one another.

“Investigators examined railroad equipment and track conditions; reviewed data from the signal system, wayside defect detectors, local surveillance cameras, and the lead locomotive’s event recorder and forward-facing and inward-facing image recorders; and completed interviews. NTSB investigators identified and examined the first railcar to derail, the 23rd railcar in the consist. Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment. The wheel bearing and affected wheelset have been collected as evidence and will be examined by the NTSB.”

“‘After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment,’ the report continues. ‘With dispatcher authorization, the crew applied handbrakes to the two railcars at the head of the train, uncoupled the head-end locomotives, and moved the locomotives about 1 mile from the uncoupled railcars. Responders arrived at the derailment site and began response efforts.”

Need for updated braking system and reasonable working conditions

Many experts and informed observers point out that the accident could have been avoided if Norfolk Southern had an updated braking system and reasonable working conditions for railroad workers. On February 24, 2023, Amy Goodman interviewed Matthew Cunningham-Cook, Researcher and Writer for The Lever, who is part of a team following all of this very closely ( He identifies some of the problems.

“Trains have been getting longer and longer, and it is occurring at the same time that the railroad workforce is getting smaller and smaller. These were exactly the concerns that the rail unions raised last year with the Biden administration, with railroads, with the public surrounding their contract negotiations and the need for paid sick leave. So that’s the broader context.

“Then there is the fact that the industry was successful in reducing the scope of this high hazard flammable train definition.” Lawinsider offers this definition: “High-hazard flammable train means a single train transporting 20 or more tank cars loaded with a Class 3 flammable liquid in a continuous block or a single train transporting 35 or more tank cars loaded with a Class 3 flammable liquid throughout the train con- sist” ( For further details, see Cornell Law (

Cunningham-Cook continues by pointing to the railroad corporations’ opposition to employing new braking technology. The rail corporations, he writes, “have been successful at resisting the widespread implementation of revolutionary new braking technology called electronically controlled pneumatic braking, over 15 years old. The railroads eventually championed these new brakes but once they figured out the cost, even though it was only $3 billion, so that’s less than 3% of the amount that the railroads have spent on stock buybacks in the last decade, they lobbied hard against any rules that would mandate their implementation.

“That is a huge problem because right now railroads use 1868 technology, technology from 1868 to brake trains. It is basically a ricochet effect, so the engine brakes and then the first car brakes and then the second car brakes and then the third car brakes, which means that the train doesn’t all stop at the same time. What that does is when heavier train cars bump into lighter train cars, which is very common because they’re not properly ordering the train cars because of the massive cutbacks in the railroad workforce, that creates what is called in-train forces, which destabilize and derail trains. Railroad Workers United, this cross-union advocacy group of railroad workers, has said that that almost certainly played a significant role in the derailment here on top of the issues with the axle that was on fire.

Norfolk Southern’s poor safety record

“Then Norfolk Southern in particular really seems like it has one of the worst safety records on the rails. There has been repeated incidents in Ohio of Norfolk Southern derailments. They had two derailments last year that they still haven’t picked up the costs for even though they explicitly pledged that they would.” The best available evidence indicates that “the catastrophe could have been prevented, had it not been for lax regulation and the outsized lobbying power of corporations like Norfolk Southern.”

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy described the derailment as ‘100% preventable.’”


The power of the giant railroad corporations

Shareholders and executives come first

With respect to the policy of Norfolk Southern and other railroad corporations, the interests of shareholders and corporate executives take priority over the conditions of work for employees, the safety of the trains, and the potential injurious impacts on communities and the environment. In Democracy Now’s interview with Matthew Cunningham-Cook (already referred to), he offers some evidence (

“Norfolk Southern’s CEO, Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, ‘sees his core constituency as not the public but his shareholders. Unfortunately, the way that our society works is that it is just about the next quarterly earnings report, how much money you can extract out of the infrastructure you already own so that you can buy back more of your stock so that you can pay more dividends, so that you can pay higher executive compensation, and that fines and class-action lawsuits, they’re ultimately a drop in the bucket compared to the extraordinary profits that these railroads collect from their workforce that is overworked and in large part burned out and infrastructure that is falling apart and is not being properly maintained even though it is owned directly by the railroads.’”

Cost-cutting by Norfolk Southern in operating the railroad

“‘At the root of it all is really cutbacks to staffing,’ Ross Grooters, a locomotive engineer and co-chair of the Railroad Workers United union, said on Democracy Now! ‘You have companies that are making obscene amounts of money…you have fewer people doing a lot more work faster. You have across-the-board cutbacks on the maintenance of cars, on the maintenance of locomotives, on the maintenance of track. This is critical infrastructure. And then you have increasingly long and heavy trains, like the one we saw here, where these trains have a greater propensity to derail.’”

“As the Lever News investigation revealed, while lobbying to block safety rules, arguing that the braking systems, for example, would be too costly to implement, Norfolk Southern spent $1 billion on stock buybacks in order to boost its share price.”

Channeling money to Republicans (and Democrats) who support the Railroad’s position

In an interview on Democracy Now, Gregory Hynes gives a crisp and worrisome summary of the evidence (  Hynes is the national legislative director at SMART, the International Association of Sheet, Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

“The railroad industry funneled, yes, over $6 million into Senate Republicans’ campaigns in 2016. John Thune was one of the top who at the time the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, was one of the highest recipients of railroad industry cash. He opposed this rule-making. The Trump administration under Elaine Chao, who was the secretary Transportation, who is the wife of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, rolled back the Obama administration’s very modest rules to expand this braking technology. Then once Biden and Buttigieg [inaudible], even though rail unions, public safety advocates, environmental groups have advocated the expansion of rail safety rules, they have yet to take substantive action so far. So, it’s unfortunate and it’s unclear why exactly that’s the case”  

Republicans in the U.S. Congress generally go along with the industry’s deregulation preferences

Brett Samuels writes on how “the GOP, Trump officials ‘laid the groundwork’ for loose railway regulations” in an article for The Hill on Feb. 22, 2023 (

“The White House on Wednesday blamed Republican lawmakers and the Trump administration for lax railway and environmental regulations in the aftermath of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that spilled toxic chemicals.”

“Andrew Bates, a deputy White House press secretary, argued congressional Republicans and former Trump administration officials ‘owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists,’ pointing to past efforts to loosen regulations.

“‘Congressional Republicans laid the groundwork for the Trump Administration to tear up requirements for more effective train brakes, and last year most House Republicans wanted to defund our ability to protect drinking water,’ Bates said in a statement. 

“There is only one way they can prove that they are finally disowning their long history of giveaways to rail industry management at the expense of communities like East Palestine: work across the aisle with us to put Obama-Biden protections back in place and go further, including with higher fines for rail pollution and properly equipping the EPA,’ he added.

“Bates also pointed to a 2021 letter 20 Republican senators wrote to the deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, urging the agency to expand the use of automated track inspections.

“The White House also noted that the Republican Study Committee, which consists of dozens of House GOP lawmakers, last year proposed cuts to government funding to address chemical spills, as well as an elimination of the Surface Water Protection Program.

“Politico reported Wednesday that the Trump administration rolled back several safety measures for railways, including regular safety audits and an Obama-era rule that required faster brakes on trains carrying flammable materials.

Those measures were part of a broader agenda of deregulation under Trump, who repeatedly sought to loosen restrictions and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.”


The harmful effects of the crash on East Palestine

Democracy Now captures generally what happened (

“On February 3rd, a massive train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio blanketed the town with a toxic brew of spilled chemicals and gasses, fouling the air, polluting waterways and killing thousands of fish and frogs. Local residents are suffering ailments ranging from respiratory distress, sore throats, burning eyes and rashes, all with unknown long-term consequences.”

Page Bennett reports that, in the three weeks after the crash, the “East Palestine train derailment killed more than 43,000 fish and animals, officials say (

“Agency Director Mary Mertz said Thursday that officers have been on site every day since the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals and believe all the fish killed as a result of the incident died immediately.” Additionally, “Officials estimated 38,222 minnows and around 5,550 other species – such as other fish, crayfish and amphibians – were killed during the derailment. The deaths occurred in a five-mile span within the impact area.”

A town meeting reveals concerns of community

Interviewed on Democracy Now, Emily Wright, development director of the Ohio-based group River Valley Organizing talked about a town hall meeting on the catastrophe, where experts offered their views and community members expressed their concerns ( 

“Yes. Last night we had a town hall with independent scientists and environmental legal experts, lawyers, and a retired fire chief, Sil, who was a hazmat trainer for decades. And people were very, very happy that someone was just listening to them and answering their questions. People’s questions are, you know: What is Norfolk Southern going to do right now to help us? Because a lot of them are involved — we’re not doing any type of class-action lawsuit or anything like that. We’re just offering free legal clinics, that are going to be coming up, for people to get unbiased advice that is not soliciting. But people are concerned about: Do they make decisions now, because they don’t have the money and they need the money? Do they wait to make decisions? Are their families safe? You know, they have — 50% of the people that were at the meeting last night raised their hand that they have well water. And at this point, the only — they’re still getting the instruction to drink bottled water, because they’re not completely sure it’s safe. So, everybody just really wants questions answered. And I think everybody is not really looking at even the high-profile visits. They more just want action.

“You know, we give — a lot of people are pointing fingers right now, but everybody is pretty disgusted with everybody. I mean, you talked about how Trump rolled back those safety regulations. Then we have two years of the Biden administration where they had a chance to reinstate those, and they didn’t. And so people are upset with all political officials right now. They’re upset that our governor and our House representative came and took a sip of water in East Palestine as a political stunt and, you know, said the water is safe. But people are waking up in the same area, in the same homes with rashes and nausea and asthma symptoms in the morning from just being exposed to all of the surface and soil contaminants right now. So, you know, there were a lot of people that are visibly upset and really feel like — really feel like they’re not being represented on all levels — local, state and federal government.

So, people are going to be taking action. They’re going to be writing letters, making calls. We’re going to be doing more petitions, because this is — unfortunately, our safety in Appalachia is something that can change from administration to administration. So what we’re going to push for at River Valley also is change at a congressional level. We need laws made. We need things that can’t be taken away by executive order or, you know, placed by that. So, that’s what we’re really pushing for, is lasting change from this. And it needs to be bipartisan. Everybody needs to get at the table with this.”

Jecey Fortin reports, “Lawyers have poured into East Palestine since the train derailment, filing more than a dozen lawsuits so far on behalf of local residents” (


Politicizing the derailment and effects

Trump misleadingly denies any responsibility

Sharon Zhang takes up this point in an article for Truthout on Feb. 23, 2023. The title of her article: “Trump Lies About Slashing Rail Safety Rules During Visit to East Palestine” (

She starts out by reminding readers that, in 2017, “Trump rescinded an Obama-era rule aimed at making trains carrying hazardous materials safer.” Zhang continues:

“In an attempt to score political points on Wednesday, former President Donald Trump jetted to Ohio to visit the site of a disastrous Norfolk Southern train derailment that experts say was likely worsened — or caused — by his administration’s sweeping safety deregulation.” During the visit, “Trump touted his donation of ‘Trump water’ to the residents of East Palestine, as well as his donation of ‘much lesser quality water’ that his team was able to come by.

“When a reporter asked about his administration’s overturn of an Obama-era rule specifically aimed at making trains carrying hazardous materials safer, which he carried out with the backing of Republicans early in his presidency, Trump lied, claiming that his administration “had nothing to do with it.”

But his administration, “at the behest of rail lobbyists, rescinded a rule that would have required rail cars with hazardous flammable materials to install new brake technology, known as Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes, that would have helped trains stop more quickly. Norfolk Southern had pressured the administration to repeal the rule, saying it would be too expensive to implement.

“‘Would ECP brakes have reduced the severity of this accident? Yes,’ former senior Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) official Steven Ditmeyer told The Lever. “The railroads will test new features. But once they are told they have to do it … they don’t want to spend the money.”

Republican criticisms of Biden on East Palestine train derailment ring hollow

Brett Samuels and Alex Gangitano identify some of the right-wing, Republican criticisms of Biden’s administration handling of the derailment in an article for The Hill on Feb. 24, 2023 (

One criticism is that President Biden has not yet visited East Palestine and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg was late in coming to the community. The Republican critics alleged that that this reflected the administration’s indifference toward the “white citizens” in that community. They note, “Former President Trump on Wednesday [Feb. 22] accused the Biden administration of ‘indifference and betrayal’ toward East Palestine during a visit there, while the mayor of the village called it a ‘slap in the face’ that Biden went to Europe before visiting the site of a potential environmental disaster. The White House said Biden has not spoken to the mayor.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has called on the secretary resign. “Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who represents the area where the derailment occurred, gave Buttigieg an “F” for his response to the toxic chemical spill in an interview with Fox News on Feb. 18.

Responses by Buttigieg and Jean-Pierre in defense of Biden administration

At the same time, both Buttigieg and Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House Press Secetary, sought to go on offense on Thursday [Feb. 23], focusing on what the administration has done while taking to task Trump and other Republicans for opposing safety regulations.”

“Buttigieg called on the former president to support the Biden administration reversing Trump-era deregulation, saying ‘we’re not afraid to own our policies when it comes to raising the bar on regulation.’

“Jean-Pierre said attacks on Buttigieg were in ‘bad faith’ because former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao wasn’t attacked when similar types of chemical spills occurred during her time as head of the agency.

“Buttigieg’s visit aligned with the release of the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) initial findings from the investigation into the derailment that tentatively corroborated reports that a wheel bearing severely overheated ahead of the accident.” That is, he waited for the first research from a government agency on the crash. The Transportation Department defended the timing of the secretary’s trip, saying Buttigieg wanted to ‘go when it is appropriate and wouldn’t detract from the emergency response efforts.” The Department also pointed out that

“the EPA is taking the lead on the federal response to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, noting those officials arrived at the site early on Feb. 4, hours after the crash.”

“Abdullah Hassan, an assistant press secretary at the White House, shared a readout on Wednesday detailing what the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have been doing on the ground to aid an investigation into the derailment.



What have government agencies done?

“The EPA on Tuesday [Feb. 21] issued a legally binding order requiring Norfolk Southern to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water, reimburse the EPA for the cleaning that it is doing and attend public meetings at the agency’s request,”

as reported by Brett Samuels


The EPA itself provides information on the order ( In a press release, the EPA’s legally binding order requires Norfolk Southern to do the following.

“Identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources.

“Reimburse EPA for cleaning services to be offered to residents and businesses to provide an additional layer of reassurance, which will be conducted by EPA staff and contractors.

“Attend and participate in public meetings at EPA’s request and post information online.

“Pay for EPA’s costs for work performed under this order.

“As part of the order, EPA will approve a workplan outlining all steps necessary to clean up the environmental damage caused by the derailment. If the company fails to complete any actions as ordered by EPA, the Agency will immediately step in, conduct the necessary work, and then seek to compel Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost.”  

Statements by the EPA administrator

The EPA press release refers to Administrator, Michael S. Regan justification for the stiff requirements imposed on Norfolk Southern (

“‘The Norfolk Southern train derailment has upended the lives of East Palestine families, and EPA’s order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community,’ said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. ‘Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community. I’m deeply grateful to the emergency responders, including EPA personnel, who’ve been on the ground since day one and ensured there was no loss of life as a result of this disaster. As we transition from emergency response, EPA will continue to coordinate closely with our local, state, and federal partners through a whole-of-government approach to support the East Palestine community during the remediation phase. To the people of East Palestine, EPA stands with you now and for as long as it may take.’”

“To address the concerns of residents regarding potential indoor contamination, EPA will offer cleaning services to area businesses and families. The Agency has extensive experience with similar cleaning programs in other Midwestern communities. Under the terms of the order, Norfolk Southern will reimburse EPA for the costs of these cleaning services. More details about how community members can request this service will be available this week.

“EPA’s order marks the transition of the multi-agency response from its ‘emergency phase’ to a longer-term remediation phase. To help implement the order, EPA will establish a ‘unified command structure’ to coordinate the clean-up related efforts of FEMA, HHS, Ohio EPA, Ohio EMA, PA DEP, as well as Norfolk Southern. This approach is frequently used in situations where multiple agencies need to work together. In this case, the response includes federal, state and local agencies across multiple states.

“EPA issued this unilateral administrative order pursuant to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which gives EPA the authority to order those responsible for pollution to clean it up. The order takes effect two days after signature, though the cleanup work has already begun and will continue.”


“As soon as EPA was notified of the Norfolk Southern train derailment on Friday, February 3, EPA personnel were on-site by 2 a.m. Saturday morning to assist with air monitoring. Since then, EPA has been boots-on-the-ground, leading robust air-quality testing – including with the state-of-the-art ASPECT plane and a mobile analytical laboratory – in and around East Palestine.

“EPA has assisted with indoor air monitoring of more than 550 homes under a voluntary screening program offered to residents, and no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified above levels of concern. EPA is continuing to provide screening to all residents within the evacuation zone.

More information about EPA’s ongoing response to the East Palestine train derailment is available on EPA’s website:

Bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduces safety legislation

Betsy Klein and Manu Raju also report on a bipartisan group of senators who introduced a bill on Wednesday, March 1, aimed at rail safety in wake of East Palestine crash ( It is called “the Railway Safety Act of 2023 and is being “introduced by Republican Sens. JD Vance of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.”

According to Klein and Raju, the “bill includes a number of provisions to boost safety procedures to prevent future incidents, including ‘new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride,’ a requirement for advance notice from railways to state emergency response officials about what their trains are carrying, requirements to prevent blocked railway crossings and new rules for train size and weight, according to a statement from the senators.” Additionally, the proposal “addresses the risk of wheel bearing failures by ramping up detection and inspection,” includes “a provision requiring ‘well-trained, two person crews aboard every train,” “boosts the maximum fines for rail carriers for wrongdoing,” and “increases grants for HAZMAT training and Federal Railroad Administration research and development, as well as funding for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s development of tank car safety features.”

The Biden administration

Klein and Raju point out that the Biden administration has advocated for similar reforms aimed at the rail industry. They report that in an interview on CNN on Feb. 28, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg “pointed to specific legislative actions the administration is looking for: raising the cap on fines for rail companies for safety violations, accelerating the timeline for bringing in fortified tank cars that are less likely to spill when there’s a derailment, and giving the Transportation Department ‘a freer hand on things like breaking regulations and regulations on hazardous material transportation.’”

Outside experts expect long-term health and environmental consequences

Activist and experienced Erin Brockofich led an East Palestine residents town hall meeting on Friday, Feb. 24 at East Palestine High School, where some 2,500 people and a hundred reporters were in attendance ( She was not optimistic.

“‘Unfortunately, this is not a quick fix…. This is going to be a long game.’

“Brockovich and attorneys warned of long-term health and environmental dangers from the chemicals released after the fiery train derailment in East Palestine.

“‘I can’t tell you how many communities feel that these moments are the biggest gaslight of their life,’ Brockovich told the audience.

“‘I’ve never seen in 30 years a situation like this,’ she said, warning residents that what her team was going to present them may scare them. ‘… I feel your angst, and I feel your frustration. And I want to share something with you; you’re not alone.’

“‘You want to be heard, but you’re going to be told it’s safe; you’re going to be told not to worry,’ she said. ‘That’s just rubbish because you’re going to worry. Communities want to be seen and heard.’

“‘These chemicals take time to move in the water. You’re going to need groundwater monitoring. People on well water: You really need to be on alert. They’re going to need to implement soil vapor intrusion modeling. Believe us. It’s coming,’ she said.”

“‘You have the ability to become — and you will become — your own critical thinker. You will vet information; you will ask questions, you will demand answers. You will listen to that gut and that instinct that will keep you connected as a community,’ Brockovich said. ‘Don’t let what’s happened here divide you.’

Subsequent research confirmed there were reasons to be concerned and to continue testing the air for toxic chemicals. Scott Dance reported, “Three weeks after the toxic train derailment in Ohio, an independent analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data has found nine air pollutants at levels that, if they persist, could raise long-term health concerns in and around East Palestine” (

Rail unions want, at a minimum, reforms

Kenny Stancil reviews the “rail workers outline plan for immediate reforms”, in an article on Common Dreams, Feb 24, 2023


‘In a statement, Railroad Workers United (RWU) pointed to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) newly published preliminary report on the February 3 crash and subsequent burnoff of vinyl chloride and other carcinogenic chemicals, which suggests that an overheated wheel bearing likely caused the train to derail. The inter-union alliance of rail workers also cited

RWU, which has previously highlighted how industry-led deregulation and Wall Street-backed policies such as “precision-scheduled railroading” have made the U.S. rail system more dangerous, said Friday that “Class 1 freight rail carriers, including Norfolk Southern, have prioritized profits over safety, cutting maintenance, equipment inspections, and personnel in all crafts while increasing the average train size to three miles or more.”

Proposals of the Railway Workers Union

RWU called on regulators and lawmakers to:

“Ensure sufficient staffing to do the job properly, efficiently, and safely, with all trains operating with a minimum of a two-person crew;

“Cap train length and weight at a reasonable level to mitigate the increased likelihood of breakdowns, train separations, and derailments;

Implement adequate and proper maintenance and inspections of locomotives and rail cars, tracks and signals, wayside detectors, and other infrastructure; and

“Standardize ample training and time off without the harassment of draconian attendance policies.”

Stancil also quotes Jason Doering, general secretary of RWU, who echoed Christenson’s message, saying: “Every day we go to work, we have serious concerns about preventing accidents like the one that occurred in Ohio. As locomotive engineers, conductors, signal maintainers, car inspectors, track workers, dispatchers, machinists, and electricians, we experience the reality that our jobs are becoming increasingly dangerous due to insufficient staffing, inadequate maintenance, and a lack of oversight and inspection.”

“We recognize,” Doering added, “that limits on train lengths and weights are necessary to prevent catastrophic derailments.”

Nationalize the Railroads

In an article for The Nation on Feb. 23, 2023,, John Nichols argues that “it’s time to talk about nationalizing America’s railroads”


“Railroads are systematically destroying the freight rail system,” explained Ross Grooters, a railroad locomotive engineer who cochairs Railroad Workers United, an inter-union solidarity caucus of rank-and-file railroad workers that has championed worker and community safety. ‘We need public ownership of this critical infrastructure to correct freight railroad problems—just like all other U.S. transportation infrastructure and other rail systems around the world.’”

“Last fall, as rail workers were engaged in a frustrating fight to get their bosses to provide paid sick leave and adopt needed safety measures, the Railroad Workers United (RWU) steering committee proposed the nationalization of the rail industry. The move got little attention at the time, but it’s picking up steam.

“In an online resolution, the RWU detailed the arguments for public ownership of the railroads, explaining that corporate owners had, in their pursuit of profits, put the industry on an

irresponsible trajectory to the detriment of shippers, passengers, commuters, trackside communities, and workers. On-time performance is in the toilet, shipper complaints are at all-time highs. Passenger trains are chronically late, commuter services are threatened, and the rail industry is hostile to practically any passenger train expansion. The workforce has been decimated, as jobs have been eliminated, consolidated, and contracted out, ushering in a new previously unheard-of era where workers can neither be recruited nor retained. Locomotive, rail car, and infrastructure maintenance has been cut back. Health and safety has been put at risk. Morale is at an all-time low. The ongoing debacle in national contract bargaining sees the carriers—after decades of record profits and record low Operating Ratios—refusing to make even the slightest concessions to the workers who—contrary to what the [major carriers] may state—have made them their riches.

“Railroad Workers United concluded that ‘since the North American private rail industry has shown itself incapable of doing the job, it is time for this invaluable transportation infrastructure—like the other transport modes—to be brought under public ownership.’

There are precedents

“That’s not a particularly radical notion. Much of the transportation infrastructure in the United States, including the interstate highway system, is publicly owned. And the railroads were themselves under federal government control during World War I. When the war ended, rail workers and their unions pushed to keep the industry publicly owned. Eugene Victor Debs, a veteran railroad union leader, campaigned on the issue in his 1920 Socialist Party presidential bid. But the government handed the railroads back to their wealthy owners and the issue died down—until the Great Depression devastated rural America.”

Renewed interest in nationalization

“Today, agitation for nationalization—which the great New York Times labor reporter A.H. Raskin once referred to as ‘the dirty word on U.S. railroads’—has been renewed. The Railroad Workers United effort has gained thoughtful attention in left media and support from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, whose members build locomotives in Erie, Pa.

‘Our nation can no longer afford private ownership of the railroads; the general welfare demands that they be brought under public ownership,’ UE argued in a January statement that observed:

Railroads are, like utilities, “natural monopolies.” The consolidation of the Class 1 railroads in the U.S. into five massive companies over the past several decades has made it clear that there is no “free market” in rail transportation. With most customers having no other choice, and no central authority mandating long-term planning, each individual railroad company has little incentive to make investments in infrastructure and every temptation to take as much of their income as possible as profits.

Concluding thoughts

The evidence on what caused the derailment and ensuing calamitous events in East Palestine is compelling and that includes the power and greed of the big railroad corporations and the banks that invest in them. This power is used in elections to support candidates and lawmakers who oppose serious action to remedy the problems and/or to water down proposals in Congress and in the states so they have little remedial effect.

The Republican Party by and large supports the industry’s advocacy of deregulation. The people in politically “red” communities like East Palestine are the victims of such corporate power, but a majority of the voters and the elected officials in this community have supported Republican candidates who are deregulators.

This story is not unique. Justin Mikulka published a book on the history of the U.S. Railroad industry in 2014 titled Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk. Safety has never been a priority of the industry and there has long been an absence of effective government action. It is clear that, despite the odds, this must change and soon. Meanwhile, not only East Palestine but the surrounding environment, and communities – for many miles around the crash site – will likely be affected by the toxic chemicals that have been released. The health impacts are also likely to affect residents of East Palestine for many years to come.

One thought on “The East Palestine train derailment, an example of corporate power and greed

  1. Thank you, Bob! I have heard that a number of people from Athens have been up there supporting residence and organizing. This is extremely helpful as I have passed it on to a number of friends.

    On Thu, Mar 2, 2023 at 11:43 AM Vital issues – challenging pol and ec


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