Opinion: The East Palestine crisis reveals immense neglect

By Farah Bassyouni Mar 3, 2023


On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train containing dangerous substances derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling chemicals into the air and water supply. When state and corporate officials became concerned about the possibility of an explosion among the wreckage, Norfolk Southern initiated a “controlled burn” of the substances, forcing residents near the site to evacuate. 

Thousands more were under orders from the state to shelter in place. The Environmental Protection Agency investigations of air quality claimed that levels of chemicals such as vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride were below the danger zone. But residents continued to report symptoms such as eye irritation and difficulty breathing. The environmental consequences have also been significant– over 3,000 small fish have died, and the impact on groundwater reserves has yet to be seen. 

This catastrophic accident has exposed public and environmental safety issues that have been ignored. A lack of stringent, comprehensive safety regulations in the transportation of hazardous chemicals constitutes a system failure to protect civilians. The consistent overreliance on the hazardous materials being transported, materials such as the vinyl chloride, which produces PVC piping, also poses immense environmental risks. Even if dire effects on human life and the environment are somehow averted this time, systemic issues are simply another “accident” waiting to happen. The tragedy in East Palestine, Ohio, should be a wake up call for Americans that huge corporations will sacrifice their employee’s health for their own benefit.

In recent history, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has made recommendations that have been ignored by legislators. When federal regulators at the Department of Transportation set out to write new regulations for high hazard trains in 2015 following several railway disasters, only trains containing crude oil were included in the classification. The 150 car freight train involved in this crash encompassed 20 cars carrying hazardous and flammable materials, yet Norfolk Southern was not required to classify the train as a “high hazard” and did not follow more strict regulations. 

Other practices used by Norfolk Southern have been criticized by rail worker unions for lack of concern for safety. The Transportation Communications Union argued to NBC News, “Norfolk Southern has prioritized speed…over safety.” With the use of precision scheduled railways and automated inspections, rail companies have been able to use less workers and cut costs, but these methods have also led to a relaxing of previous safety standards. The prioritization of profit and efficiency over human and environmental safety is a constant pattern in the industry.

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