Americans are no strangers to corporate greed, lies and, consequently, disaster. These characteristics are baked into the very fabric of this country. Some corporations have continuously caused massive damage to our communities and the well-being of the American people. Such irresponsibility is encouraged by a lack of government regulations and unfettered capitalism that exists in the name of maximizing profits at the expense of the public good.
In the last 10 years, environmental catastrophes such as the Flint water crisis, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, DuPont C8 contamination, the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, the 2018 California wildfires and the Houston chemical plant explosion demonstrate the ramifications for this type of unchecked capitalism; Not to mention the 2010 BP oil spill, which remains the largest in history.
Another environmental and public health catastrophe
Most recently, on Friday, Feb. 3, the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, was struck with catastrophe at the hands of yet another corporation. A Norfolk Southern train known as 32N, which railroad workers commonly referred to as “32 Nasty” because of its cargo and the way it was arranged, was carrying five cars of oil and 11 cars with more than one million pounds of toxic and hazardous chemicals, such as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, isobutylene, ethylene glycol and ethylhexyl acrylate, when it derailed.
The effects of breathing in these chemicals can cause severe and long-lasting harm to not only the environment, but human health; Especially in cases where people are exposed to toxins at this magnitude.
Breathing in vinyl chloride, for instance, has been linked to numerous health problems, including liver and nervous system damage, as well as an increased risk of cancer. Butyl acrylate exposure can cause respiratory issues and long-term liver and kidney damage. Ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol both cause skin and eye irritation as well as nausea, and sore throats, while isobutylene exposure can lead to coughing, difficulty breathing and even death.
To make matters worse, the chemicals leaked from the train into the air, soil, and two small creeks that run through the town, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 43,000 fish and other animals in mass by Feb. 24. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board blames the derailment on a wheel bearing that overheated, caught fire and ultimately failed.
After waiting two days, Norfolk Southern scheduled a “controlled burn” of one of the cars containing vinyl chloride for Feb. 6, prompting an evacuation order by the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office on Sunday, Feb. 5.
This “vet and burn” was scheduled by Norfolk Southern and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) out of fears that a larger explosion could occur. The controlled burns consisted of punching holes into the train cars containing the chemical, funneling it into a trench, and burning it. However, just hours before the scheduled burn was supposed to take place Monday morning, the decision moved from burning one car to five.
The EPA provided highly detailed guidelines on how to conduct these controlled burns, despite this, according to Pennsylvania State Representative Abigail Salisbury and EPA engineer Mark Durno, Norfolk Southern ignored those guidelines and every other government recommendation.
“We helped develop the modeling for what the air was going to do when the plan was to burn just one car because that was the original plan. That night, Sunday night, that was the plan. On Monday, we learned that they had made the decision to vent and burn 5 cars. We weren’t part of that decision.”Mark Durno, EPA engineer
Black mushroom clouds loomed over the town, leaving a dark mess of soot and ash blanketing the streets and, buildings, while the smell of burning chemicals corroded the air. Only two days after the burns, on Feb. 8, the evacuation was lifted by Gov. Mike DeWine in accordance with the EPA.
Residents were told that it is completely safe to return to their homes and no chemicals linked to the derailment were detected in the town’s air or drinking water at levels that would threaten people’s health. This, of course, was untrue, leaving the citizens of East Palestine to breathe in the toxins.
Public distrust in institutions
The EPA and the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, or CTEH, have stated the air and water testing they’ve both conducted do not show contamination above the EPA’s federal action levels. However, concerns have been raised about CTEH’s history as a controversial go-to private contractor for corporations looking to downplay the environmental disasters and avoid responsibility.
One of the many controversies surrounding CTEH involves their environmental monitoring for BP’s cleanup efforts after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout, where they reported “no significant exposures” despite several hospitalizations involving workers and insufficient test data.
CTEH’s business model often includes providing clients with the resources to attempt to defy government regulations and defeat court claims against them. From some perspectives, it’s entire job is to protect corporate interests. The organization’s financial success, which includes a reported $544.4 million in revenue in 2022, is heavily dependent on the legal outcomes they achieve for their clients.
This model raises additional concerns about the reliability of their research and findings. If CTEH reported evidence suggesting their clients’ actions pose a threat to public health or the environment, maintaining a client base would likely be difficult.
For example, officials declared East Palestine’s municipal water safe, despite the mass presence of dead fish and residential reports of shiny, oily film over the town’s water. These reports led to political theater. Figures such as Gov. DeWine, Ohio Congressman Bill Johnson, and head of the EPA, Michael Regan, all insisted no issues with the drinking water existed. They intended to prove it and ease residents’ fears by drinking cups of the town’s tap water on camera and posting it on social media.
They’re not the only members of public service who insisted that everything was fine, despite contradictory evidence. Fire Chief Keith Drabick, Police Chief James Brown, Mayor Trent Conaway, Lt. Governor Jon Husted and Anne Vogel, Director of the Ohio EPA, all participated in drinking the tap water on camera.
To residents of East Palestine, such as Jami Cozza, the act of drinking the water on camera and official reports claiming no safety issues exist, seemed insincere. Jami told a panel of federal and state experts at a town hall in early March, “They’re all scientists. They’re sitting up here telling us nothing’s wrong. I want you to tell me why everybody in my community is getting sick.”
Other residents such as Shelby Walker, sought out an independent urine test for her and her husband. Afterwards, both of them tested positive for elevated levels of vinyl chloride and benzines.
According to Andrew Whelton, an independent researcher on-site from Purdue University, “What we’re finding right now is that the creek poses an acute health risk to the community. The creeks are heavily contaminated with residue.”
Whelton explains that the burns done by Norfolk Southern could have created additional chemical compounds the EPA may not even be testing for. His explanation turned out to be true.
Inadequate testing measures
In the same town hall meeting where Mark Durno explained the EPA was not part of Norfolk Southern’s decision to vet and burn an additional four cars, Durno also said EPA’s air testing equipment is inadequate and flawed. He explained that the handheld test devices, known as Photoionization Detectors, or PIDs, test down to levels as low as 0.1 parts per million, equivalent to 100 parts per billion.
To explain, during testing the EPA decided that a level of 20 parts per billion of butyl acrylate is unsafe. If this chemical is found in a home at 20 parts per billion or more, the EPA declares the home unsafe. However the device the EPA uses to test for the chemical can only detect it after reaching a level of 100 parts per billion — five times higher than the level the EPA considers unsafe.
Durno also confirmed Andrew Whelton’s hypothesis that other chemical byproducts, created when vinyl chloride is burned, would not be detected by PID devices. These admissions left residents shocked and in limbo on the actual status of their health and safety within their own homes.
“The machines that are used in the homes and the machines that are hanging on the telephone poles, some of those are multi-gas meters where we can see hydrogen chloride and carbon monoxide and a bunch of other gas sensors — but they also have that photoionization detector which is that volatile organic meter. It goes down to 0.1 parts per million [ppm]. Now, the problem with that is our vinyl chloride action level is 500 parts per billion, which is .5 parts per million — so just above that level of protection, right? That Butyl Acrylate, after the emergency phase, we drop that down to 20 parts per billion, so we can’t see that lowest level [inaudible] — that’s important. But you can smell Butyl Acrylate at much lower levels, so, yes there is a chance that chemical can be present and we don’t see it. You need to understand that. Butyl Acrylate is an irritant, and it can cause some of the symptoms that people have presented. If that is what’s causing it, I don’t know but, again, we can see to a certain threshold.”Mark Durno, EPA engineer
On top of the EPA’s admission to conducting inadequate testing, Nicole Karn, a chemist at The Ohio State University, also reported the EPA did not correctly preserve five out of six water samples before testing. This inconsistency led Karn to conclude, “This data cannot be trusted.” The New York Times also reports that most locals are skeptical of the official reports. Some residents are even planning to pay for independent testing for chemicals.
Public withholding of information
The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, a branch that assesses the health impacts of chemical exposures, sent 15 agents to East Palestine to conduct an ACE investigation, an “Assessment of Chemical Exposure.” Early results of the Ohio ACE survey show that more than half of the 514 residents who participated have experienced symptoms after the Norfolk Southern derailment. The top symptoms reported by residents in the area are:
- Headaches, reported by 74% of survey participants
- Anxiety, 61% of survey participants
- Coughing, 53% of survey participants
- Fatigue, 53% of survey participants
- Pain, irritation or burning of the skin, 50% of survey participants
- Stuffy nose/sinus congestion, 50% of survey participants
- Runny nose, 26% of survey participants
- Increased congestion/phlegm, 22% of survey participants
- Burning nose or throat, 21% of survey participants
- Hoarseness, 15% of survey participants
But that is not all. Seven of the 15 CDC team members conducting these tests briefly fell ill during the investigation in early March, which went unreported by the CDC for nearly a month. The symptoms that the investigators reported feeling included sore throats, headaches, coughing, and nausea. All of these symptoms are consistent with the side effects of inhaling chemicals such as butyl acrylate and consistent with what residents reported feeling.
According to an anonymous CDC official, “Symptoms resolved for most team members later the same afternoon, and everyone resumed work on survey data collection within 24 hours. Impacted team members have not reported ongoing health effects.”
The official went on to explain that because the team’s symptoms improved soon after leaving the area, the CDC felt that this incident was not significant or of enough importance to be reported. The CDC has also likened fatigue and the team’s 18-hour workdays as reasons they possibly fell ill.
With all of the concerns of local residents, the reports surfacing, the CDC getting sick and the EPA admitting to inaccurate reporting and testing; What is being done about it?
Politicizing the issue
The answer, not much. The failure in railroad safety has largely been attributed to a Trump administration decision to reverse railway safety regulations implemented under President Obama in 2015. These rollbacks removed the requirement of faster brakes on trains carrying highly hazardous and flammable materials. The removal of safety regulations shelved a rule that mandated at least two crew members aboard freight train and lifted a ban on transporting liquefied natural gas by rail. These changes occurred, despite fears the latter could cause explosions.
Although the Trump administration rolled back these regulations, even if this safety rule had been in effect, it would not have applied to 32Nasty. The reason being because 32Nasty would not be categorized as a high-hazard cargo train under federal regulations. President Joe Biden has politicized the issue, failing to do anything besides criticize Trump.
Biden has the same power to roll back these reversals and has not done so.
Will there be accountability?
Accountability appears to be an unlikely outcome. Norfolk Southern CEO, Alan Shaw, alongside EPA personnel, testified before a Senate panel to address “environmental and public health threats” from the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. At this hearing, there was a spotlight on rail safety regulation.
The Railway Accountability Act, a bill that builds on the proposals of the Railway Safety Act, was introduced earlier in April. According to the website of Sen. John Fetterman, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, “The Railway Accountability Act would take multiple steps towards guaranteeing rail safety by directing the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to study wheel-related failures and derailments; enhancing switchyard safety practices; enacting commonsense brake safety measures; requiring large freight railroad companies to join a confidential “close call” reporting system administered by the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) & NASA ensuring that railways provide sufficient reporting and safety equipment to its workers, among other improvements.”
The bill also hopes to push for more thorough safety inspections, something Norfolk Southern has lacked. The bill would also require two-person crews to work aboard trains carrying hazardous materials, something that Norfolk Southern’s Shaw opposes. He claims to not be aware of any data that links crew size with safety. So far, the bill is struggling to gain support from Republicans.
The only punishment it seems that Norfolk Southern will receive is a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice. The suit holds Norfolk Southern accountable for $64,000 per violation, per day for spilling pollutants, and roughly $55,000 for spilling oil and toxins.
The lawsuit claims Norfolk Southern violated the Clean Water Act by spilling pollutants, oil, and toxins into waterways and is therefore responsible for the reimbursement of the federal government’s cleanup efforts. The lawsuit also claims that under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA, Norfolk Southern is financially responsible for the cleanup.
Norfolk Southern’s derailment poisoned a town, and the only legal ramifications are potentially more rules and regulations in the future and a fine for a $50 billion company. Every time a massive corportation causes an environmental emergency, the ones responsible seem to consistently downplay the risks and effects. Meanwhile, the people who live in these communities are forced to deal with the consequences and suffering caused by these corporations’ actions.
A real concern exists when corporations violate laws and endanger health, leaving affected citizens deprived of adequate justice and reform. Very rarely is there any real justice for those harmed by mega-corporations’ greed and unchecked capitalism.
Following the Norfolk Southern derailment, citizens should be aware of corporate deception and lobbying efforts against safety provisions in these types of events. The continued dangers of past, present, and future corporate cover-ups require action. Absent action, citizen health and safety will remain under threat. Again.
Edited by James Sutton