My mother-in-law lives in New Waterford, Ohio. It is one of those places described as a “quiet town,” located about 20 miles south of Youngstown.
This town is one of those that if you do not live near it, you probably never have heard of it. The same was true of its neighbor about four miles to her east, the slightly larger town of East Palestine, Ohio. But chances are much better you heard about East Palestine after what appears to be one of the largest environmental disasters in a long time happened just outside its eastern border.
On Friday evening, February 3, a massive train derailment and ensuing fire belched large clouds of dark smoke into the atmosphere. The train cars had derailed and crashed into a gas station, and many of the cars were carrying flammable liquid, including crude oil. Some of those cars were carrying very dangerous chemicals, including one of the most toxic compounds on the planet, vinyl chloride.
Vinyl chloride is dangerous enough, but early last week, crews ignited a controlled burn of several cars filled with the hazardous material to prevent an impending massive explosion, launching a large cloud of phosgene, a poisonous gas used as a weapon during World War I, and hydrogen chloride. The image above was taken during the burn from just over the border in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. To make matters worse, there was a temperature inversion during the burn. A layer of warm air sits over denser colder air at the surface, creating a type of ceiling that traps smoke. You may have seen a similar phenomenon during cold, still early mornings. In this case, it trapped poisonous fumes at several thousand feet.
Needless to say, this is raising a lot of concerns for my wife and me. My mother-in-law is upwind from the site, but her church, grocery store, and friends are in East Palestine. It is difficult to grasp exactly what the risks are with the derailment. Given the surprising and disappointing lack of coverage in national news, information can be hard to find and conspiracy and social media bullshit fill in the gaps.
As is often the case, warnings that such a disaster was possible were sounded, and of course, ignored. Railroad unions have stressed that the profits over safety approach was creating a railway system that was/is a ticking time bomb. Rail safety was among the concerns raised by railroad workers prior to a potential strike that was averted by the Biden Administration. Rail companies laid off more than 20,000 workers during the 2018-2019 period, and the lack of workers causing less rail maintenance and hurried schedules only adds to the safety risk.
The Railroad Workers United, as noted in the linked story, put out a statement that cuts to inspection staff and elimination of safety protocol will only lead to more disasters like this one. The East Palestine train was hurried, according to the union, and while a cause is yet to be determined, it appears the train did not go through a proper inspection.
Unfortunately, Ohio is a red state, and as I can tell you from my frequent visits to the area in and around East Palestine, it is an especially red area. Plenty of Trump signs, etc. Republicans are vocally anti-regulation, and such a policy stance is what leads to tragedies like this train derailment. This is not blaming the people in the area, but more a shaming of the people they voted for not having those very same people’s best interest in mind, to the point where they put profit over their very lives. The story of American capitalism in a nutshell.
Americans are notoriously strong believers in the gospel of It Can’t Happen to Me, so often any needed change that is public safety-oriented is put on the back burner. Beyond that, it’s sort of a magic talisman to a lot of people, a mantra to chant when confronted by certain realities. As the people in the East Palestine area discovered, such magical thinking doesn’t help you when a fast-moving train full of chemicals derails.
The area around East Palestine is sparsely populated, but there is no reason to believe that this cannot happen in a more populated region. The public health advocacy group Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh estimates that up to 50% of volatile Bakken crude oil refined on the East Coast currently runs through metro Pittsburgh and about 176,000 Pittsburghers live in the derailment blast zone. A new Shell plastic plant will go online soon, adding to this traffic in the region. A rule approved in 2020 by the Department of Transportation allowing liquified natural gas to be shipped via rail with no added safety regulations adds to the danger. I am already seeing online arguments that such events are rare so no additional regulation nor safety work is necessary, but this is nonsense babble from the kiddie table in the face of all the facts out there.
I hear the trains go past my mother-in-law’s home when we visit. I hear them during the day, and I hear them as I am drifting off to sleep. At our own home, we live less than a quarter mile from train tracks. Each time the sounds of a train reach my ear, it will be a reminder of just how foolish “It Can’t Happen to Me” is as a way of thinking. Magical thinking won’t fix train tracks.
The last word goes to the Man in Black.