Norfolk Southern’s Role in the East Palestine Train Derailment
On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials bound for Pennsylvania derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. On February 6, the government issued an evacuation order for the small town and began a controlled release of the toxic chemicals in order to prevent a disastrous explosion. Citizens have since been allowed back in their homes, but are now grappling with the damage to their community. The lack of information from elected officials has led to widespread discontent and outrage among community members. Norfolk Southern, who owned the train, is now facing criticism of their business practices as officials and citizens alike seek an explanation for the derailment.
Norfolk Southern has received censure for their role in the accident, as critics specifically accuse them of prioritizing profits over safety. In recent years, the railroad industry has lobbied against costly regulations that would prevent accidents like the one in East Palestine from occurring. Observers point out that they paid $18 billion to their shareholders in the past five years–nearly double the amount they’ve invested into its operations and railways.
Under the Obama administration in 2015, several rules were instituted regarding the safety of trains and rail workers. These included requiring trains carrying hazardous materials such as flammable liquids to equip their trains with more advanced braking systems. The Trump Administration repealed these rules in 2017, claiming that the cost of the rules outweighed the benefits. Among these rules was a law requiring trains carrying hazardous materials to upgrade their brakes to ECP (electronically-controlled pneumatic) brakes, which lowers the risk of derailment. Norfolk Southern supported this repeal and advocated for it in a 23-page document that highlighted regulations it wanted rolled back by the Trump administration. Although officials argued that this specific rule wouldn’t have drastically impacted the East Palestine train, other repealed rules seem to have contributed to the derailment: A report by the inspector general of the Transportation Department highlighted that the Federal Railroad Administration's oversight of hazardous materials had several weaknesses.
Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sent a letter on February 17 to seven of the largest rail companies (including Norfolk Southern) requesting specific details on the safety procedures involved in the transport of hazardous materials. She pointed out that the railroads had slashed their workforce by about a third and rolled back other safety and regulation measures despite rising profits. These actions may have impacted the derailment, as labor unions warned in May 2021 that understaffing increases safety risks.
The East Palestine accident also occurred in the wake of the 2022 rail labor unions’ threat of a strike which culminated in a deal between the workers and their railroad managers facilitated by Congress. The deal instituted an additional personal day, caps on health care premiums, and a 24% raise over five years, but notably denied the workers paid sick days they were fighting for. Rail workers have been fighting for increased paid sick days for years now, arguing that due to staffing shortages, they are unable to take days off. This deal successfully avoided a strike during the busy holiday season at the expense of the union’s demands.
Aside from input from labor unions, other comments on the derailment have come from environmental groups who have health concerns regarding the explosion. The main contaminant that leaked from the train was vinyl chloride. According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure to this chemical via inhalation could lead to weakness, abdominal pain, gastrointestinal bleeding, or cyanosis of the extremities. The EPA conducted air tests outdoors and inside homes in East Palestine and determined that it was safe for residents to return on February 8, but many residents are not convinced.
At a town hall, citizens reported skin rashes and sick pets after the explosion despite assurances from the EPA that the air and water were safe. Residents like Kirsten Miller expressed frustration with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and called on him to do more for the residents, asserting that “They want to brush us under the rug like nothing ever happened, and that’s what’s being done.”
This sentiment is common among not only East Palestine residents but also labor unions and environmental activists who call on the federal government to impose heavier regulations and safety standards upon railroad companies like Norfolk Southern. This is in light of a second derailment that occurred in southeast Michigan on February 16, just days after the Ohio accident. While the Michigan train wasn’t carrying hazardous materials, it continued a string of Norfolk Southern train accidents that have been on the rise in recent years.
While the EPA reports show evidence that the environment in East Palestine will not experience long-term effects, the accident demonstrates a trend of large companies eschewing safety measures for their workers and the environment in favor of profits. Environmental activists draw parallels between the train derailment and other environmental tragedies like Deepwater Horizon, the oil spill that polluted the Gulf of Mexico. Deepwater Horizon was also caused by negligence on a large company’s part in favor of earnings. They argue that while railroad companies continue to put profits over safety, the people and the environment suffer the consequences.