By Geoff Mirelowitz and Marilee Taylor
The February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern (NS) train carrying hazardous chemicals caused an inferno and the release of enormous plumes of toxic black smoke over East Palestine, Ohio. It has brought into sharp focus the danger the railroads’ relentless drive for profit poses to public safety.
This is the same motive that led the rail barons to refuse paid days off to railroad workers who are sick or too exhausted from long and unpredictable hours of work to operate trains safely. In December, President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress backed the railroad owners, imposing the new national rail contract they insisted on. (See “Rail Contract Shows Unions Need New Leadership; Workers Need Our Own Party.”)
News coverage of the derailment shined a spotlight on the enormous profits the railroad owners are raking in. A front-page article in the February 18 New York Times reported, “Norfolk Southern, which earned more than $3 billion last year… over the past five years… paid shareholders nearly $18 billion through stock buybacks and dividends — twice as much as the amount it invested in its railways and operations. Other large railways have paid out billions to their shareholders, too, and their shares have done better than the wider stock market over the last decade.”
Health dangers threaten community
Residents of East Palestine were ordered to evacuate while photos and videos of the frightening flames from the derailment quickly made national news.
On February 6, a “controlled release” of toxic fumes from the derailed and hazardous cars was conducted, leading to more gruesome images. Two days later residents were assured it was safe to return to their homes. Norfolk Southern rushed to run trains through the town again. But the danger was far from over.
As the Washington Post reported on February 18, “a pungent odor remains in the air in East Palestine, and some residents have complained of rashes, runny eyes and other symptoms.” The extent of contamination of soil and groundwater is yet unknown.
The derailment and its possible causes and consequences have become national news, appearing frequently and prominently in the New York Times, Washington Post, and many other news sites across the United States. Examples include: “Norfolk Southern’s Profits and Accident Rates Rose in Recent Years” (Times), “Here’s what the derailed Ohio train was carrying and what was burned” (Post), and “Rail Companies Blocked Safety Rules Before Ohio Derailment.” (The Lever.)
In and around East Palestine residents challenged railroad and government assurances that there is no danger to their health. “The way that the response from Norfolk Southern and government officials has unfolded has deepened a conviction among many here that they have been treated as expendable victims of powerful forces,” the New York Times reported on February 15. “In downtown East Palestine on Tuesday afternoon [Feb. 14], a man stood on a street corner holding a sign that read: ‘Profits over people / They Poisoned the Community.’”
“We will be judged by our actions,” claimed NS president and CEO Alan Shaw. The ironic truth of that statement led to fury at a February 15 town hall gathering when the company announced, hours before the meeting, it would not participate.
There are good reasons for health concerns.
The February 14 New York Times quoted Donald S. Holmstrom, a former director of the Western Regional Office of the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents. “There’s just a lot of unknowns,” said Holmstrom.
According to the Times, “Mr. Holmstrom managed the Chemical Safety Board’s investigation into the 2010 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused the worst offshore spill in American history. He said the Ohio derailment was significant enough that it could merit a presidential commission along the lines of the one that was created after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.”
The same article quoted Gerald Poje, another expert in environmental health who is also a former member of the Chemical Safety Board, discussing the toxic material released in the derailment: “The volume is just stupendous. It just is horrific to think about how much was released and how much was purposefully burned.”
Independent public investigation needed
A genuinely independent and completely public investigation is needed, both of the derailment and every single action — or inaction — of the federal agencies involved, including the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The unions representing railroad workers could take the lead in demanding such an investigation and in providing testimony by rail workers about how the railroads operate and do business every day.
This is the only way to discover all the relevant facts so that action can be taken to protect the health of those affected by this derailment and to prevent future disasters.
The specific cause of the derailment has not yet been determined. According to a February 18 report in the Washington Post, however, “A security camera captured the Norfolk Southern train near Salem, Ohio, 20 miles east of the site where it later derailed. What appears to be sparks and flames can be seen underneath one of the cars. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has since said that the derailment appears to have been caused by a mechanical problem on one car, saying a wheel bearing on that car appeared to have overheated.”
Should this prove to be true it only leads to other questions.
The railroads often boast about “cost cutting” that makes them more profitable. How do such decisions affect the number of jobs and conditions of work of those workers who inspect each car — including the wheels — before a train departs?
Why was the overheated wheel not caught by a defect detector, a device normally integrated into the tracks that includes sensors to detect axle and other problems? A “hot wheel” should have been caught by such sensors. When did the train last pass such a detector before the derailment? Was the device working properly?
“Excess size caused train to break down in days before it derailed in Ohio, employees say” read the headline of a February 15 CBS News report. The on-line article added vital information.
“The train, which originated from Madison, Illinois, on the evening of Feb. 1, broke down at least once before derailing in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, according to employees familiar with the matter,” CBS reported.
“The employees say there were concerns among those working on the train over what they believed was the train’s excessive length and weight — 151 cars, 9,300 feet long, 18,000 tons — before it reached East Palestine, which contributed to both the initial breakdown and the derailment,” CBS continued.
‘A system stretched to its limits’
“The employees described a system stretched to its limits,” CBS added.
“’The workers are exhausted, times for car inspections have been drastically cut, and there are no regulations on the size of these trains,’ said one employee.”
CBS did not name the employees, who fear retaliation by the company for speaking out. But CBS also spoke to Jared Cassity, Alternate National Legislative Director of SMART-TD, one of the largest rail unions.
“There’s a good chance the car that derailed had not been properly inspected for some time,” Cassity told CBS. The news report continued, “He added that the company says inspections of freight cars need to be completed in as little as 60 seconds.” Cassity elaborated, “You combine that with the added length and tonnage, plus the fact that it had all this hazardous material, and this was predictable. If nothing changes, it will happen again.”
Information from railroad workers themselves is essential. Trustworthy information on these issues cannot be expected from those with a vested interest in railroad profits, nor from federal agencies that look out for the interests of the owners of the railroads and other industries. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) record in the Boeing 737 MAX disasters has revealed that much.
Railroad Workers United (RWU), a national group of rank-and-file workers who belong to various national unions on the railroads, has also set a good example of what is needed to provide that information. Its timely and thorough reporting on the Ohio disaster includes a February 7 press release headlined, “Fiery Ohio Train Wreck the Result of ‘PSR.’” It explained:
“Railroad Workers United (RWU) condemns the dangerous and historically unsafe practices by Class 1 rail carriers that resulted in this catastrophe that will impact the community of East Palestine Ohio for many years, if not forever. The root causes of this wreck are the same ones that have been singled out repeatedly, associated with the hedge fund initiated operating model known as ‘Precision Scheduled Railroading’ (PSR).
“But risky practices, such as ever longer and heavier trains even precede PSR. The train that wrecked is a case in point, 9,300 feet long, 18,000 tons. Other hallmarks of modern-day railroading include deep cuts [in] both maintenance and operating employees, poor customer service, deferred maintenance to rolling stock and infrastructure, long working hours and chronic fatigue, limited on-the-job training and high employee turnover.”From RWU press release
CBS News described PSR as a “strategy that has been widely adopted across the railroad industry and is intended to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Norfolk Southern implemented PSR in 2019.
“According to a December report by the Government Accountability Office,” CBS continued, “PSR led to longer trains and an overall staff decrease of about 28% among the nation’s seven largest freight railroads, which includes Norfolk Southern.”
It added: “PSR has led to fewer and shorter inspections of train cars, like the ones that derailed in Ohio according to Jared Cassity.”
The case for nationalization
Since its initial press release, RWU has reported regularly on the derailment, its possible causes, and the consequences. It has also begun promoting a national campaign based on a RWU Resolution in Support of Public Ownership of the Railroads.
A discussion about the need to nationalize the railroads is timely. A successful campaign would require mobilizing working people and our allies in the millions. It would necessitate a change in the strategic direction of the rail unions and the entire labor movement. It would demand a break from the two-party system that protects the interests of the employers because both the Democrats and Republicans will fight tooth and nail against nationalization.
What would public ownership look like? American Railroads: The Case for Nationalization, a book published more than 40 years ago, offers ideas that remain valuable and necessary today. It explains:
“The basic explanation of the state of American railroads… lies in the private ownership of railroads and in the profit drive that powers every move the railroad companies take.
“The railroads should be reorganized according to the needs of the working people, farmers and small businesses that railroads are supposed to serve. They should not be run for private profit. They should be nationalized and run for the benefit of society.
“They should be converted into public utilities where the workers themselves have control over the conditions of work.
“Nationalization can be a big step toward ripping away the cover of ‘business secrecy,’ which has served… to conceal profiteering and pillage at the public expense by the railroad owners. Once nationalized, the railroads should not be handed over to a gang of government bureaucrats or ‘regulators,’ who invariably come from private industry and who are tied in a hundred ways to big business. Instead, the railroads should be managed by an elected public board that works entirely in the open. By insisting that all the meetings of such a board be open to the public, that its books and records be published and available for public inspection, and that its decisions be fully aired and accounted for, working people could keep a close eye on its operations. This would place the working-class majority of society in the best position to fight to safeguard its interests.”From American Railroads: The Case for Nationalization
Millions of workers could be mobilized to press such demands and in the process transform our unions into the fighting organizations we need.
Marilee Taylor retired in February 2022 from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad as a locomotive engineer and member of the BLET Division 32 in Aurora, Illinois, after more than 28 years of service. She is an active member of Railroad Workers United. Geoff Mirelowitz was a switchman on the BNSF for more than 17 years and a member of SMART Local 845 in Seattle.
For further reading…
 The crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX jets that resulted in the deaths of 346 people “were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA,” concluded a Congressional panel after an 18-month investigation.
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Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions