Who Will Bring the Railroads to Heel? Not This White House

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Some months back, Biden and congress smacked down a railroad workers’ strike. A key issue was working conditions: no sick days, crews that were too small for safety, etc. The Biden team, in cahoots with congressional Dems like Steny Hoyer and practically the entire GOP didn’t care. They, like the big rail corporations, wanted the trains to run on time. Nothing else mattered. Where was transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg during this hullaballoo? Nowhere to be found.

Incidentally, during holiday season, Southwest Airlines seriously inconvenienced tens of thousands of customers by cancelling thousands of flights. Where was Buttigieg? AWOL. Then on February 3 a train jumped the tracks passing through East Palestine, Ohio, and 38 cars derailed in flames. What did Buttigieg say? Bupkis, until over a week later. Did he hurry to East Palestine, a hamlet poisoned by vinyl chloride and the other toxins released first by the accident and second by the train company, Norfolk Southern’s decision to burn these compounds, the better for business by clearing the tracks and getting freight moving again? He did not. At first he complained that his hands were tied. Buttigieg waited till February 23 to visit the stricken town. Biden didn’t bother to go at all.

In Black Agenda Report March 1, Margaret Kimberley cites these same failings of Buttigieg (which I read after writing this article), to argue that we live in an oligarchy. Perhaps nothing demonstrates that better than this entire East Palestine calamity. Infamous bigwig imperial warmongers like David Frum in the Atlantic love to berate other leaders, such as Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, for passing an election reform law that supposedly damages democracy (it does not), but when it comes to the totally dysfunctional, donor-owned so-called democracy in Washington, they have nothing to say. As for recognizing that we live in an oligarchy – fuhgeddaboudit. But we do. We inhabit a very violent, decaying empire, ruled by the flunkeys of a warlike caste of oligarchs. As AMLO said in response to the U.S. press attacks on his new legislation, Mexico is more of a democracy than the U.S., regardless of hysterical congressional humbug about drug cartels running the Mexican government.

“Facing pressure from lawmakers in his own party after a spate of train derailments…Buttigieg has now resorted to falsely suggesting that he does not have power to compel the rail industry to upgrade its safety equipment and procedures,” the Lever reported February 15. So Buttigieg’s complaint is phony. Worse, as Jeffrey St. Clair reported February 17 in CounterPunch, “Buttigieg’s department is currently working on a new rule that would further weaken train braking requirements.” So the problem is deregulation and that there’s just been too much of it. But don’t expect this white house to regulate. No. There will be more derailments due to the lack of rules with any bite, in fact several trains charged off the tracks since East Palestine, with one very recently, March 4 (again in Ohio, again Norfolk Southern), but the Biden regime appears to count on us just getting used to such off-the-track cataclysms, like school shootings.

Over the course of twenty years the rail industry showered federal and state lobbyists and officials with $654 million, according to Common Dreams March 3. Deregulation ensued like night after day. And so did the catastrophe in East Palestine. While in congress, Biden voted on much of this rail deregulation. Just one for instance: On April 1, 1980, Biden voted for the Staggers Rail Act to deregulate railroads. He’s been at this longer than most people have been alive. Don’t expect him to change course now.

Meanwhile, hundreds of East Palestine residents filed a class-action lawsuit. It claims, Zerohedge reported February 26, that “Norfolk Southern ‘went rogue’ when it made the decision three days after the derailment to blow up five train cars containing deadly vinyl chloride. Around 1.1 million pounds of the toxic compound were spilled and later burned.” What does the white house say about this? Well, not much. And to expert warnings about this catastrophe releasing dioxin, the white house was equally mum until March 2, when the EPA finally, finally ordered the company to test for dioxin. One toxicologist quoted earlier by Zerohedge said: “It’s criminal that the EPA didn’t come forward with information about dioxin and start testing for it.” The EPA, like the white house, has advanced in slow motion. It must have had bigger things on its mind until March. What could be bigger for Americans than a railroad company nuking a U.S. town with toxic chemicals? Your guess is as good as mine.

So as Biden jetted to Kiev and Buttigieg was nowhere to be found, Trump zipped into East Palestine on February 22 to distribute bottled water to locals. But be not deceived: it was the Trump administration that tossed out Obama’s train brakes regulations to begin with, though according to the Lever February 8, the Obama administration itself watered down the regs under industry pressure. A wheel bearing that heated up and then failed caused the East Palestine misfortune. Hot box detectors didn’t sense it until too late. Presumably this is something routine maintenance could have prevented. But maintenance costs money, and railroads don’t want to pay. Let’s just hope those flimsy brake regs don’t do what everyone knows they can, that is, cause more, fiery derailments.

“While derailments declined under Obama’s term, they’ve remained steady under Trump and Biden,” St. Clair reported, “1204 in 2019, 1013 in 2020,1020 in 2021 and 1044 in 2022.” So Trump dished out his share of hokum. Because that’s a lot of trains jumping the tracks during the Trump and Biden regimes. Biden, of course, has supposedly loftier things to deal with, like sending billions of taxpayer dollars to Ukraine. So far, he can’t be bothered to visit East Palestine. Like his transportation secretary, who waited almost three weeks to go to Ohio. You get what you vote for. And Americans voted for “Let Them Eat Cake.”

Buttigieg finally officially addressed this fiasco on February 19. According to the Washington Post that day, he “said in a letter Sunday to Norfolk Southern chief executive Alan Shaw that he would call on congress to raise the cap on fines for railroad safety breaches…The current fine is $225,455…Norfolk Southern’s revenue last year was $12.7 billion.” So this fantastically rich company claimed it could not afford larger train crews or sick days for its workers – a wrong Biden could have righted with an executive order, but surprise! he chose not to. This railroad corporation also balked at new brakes for its freight trains as a needless expense.

So where exactly does the EPA flounder around in all this? Well, it ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the cleanup – weeks after the derailment ruined the lives of everyone in East Palestine. And there’s a problem with this EPA order. According to Sharon Zhang in Truthout February 21: “The company has been found to be conducting faulty tests.” Great. So Norfolk Southern is already dong a lousy job and it has barely gotten started. To make matters worse, the company dodged a public hearing about the catastrophe on February 15.

Then the National Transportation Safety Board released a report on the disaster. ABC News reported February 27 that the NTSB chair “called the derailment ‘100 percent preventable’ and said it was ‘no accident.’” EPA administrator Michael Regan announced February 21 “that his agency is ordering Norfolk Southern ‘to conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup.’ If Norfolk Southern doesn’t comply, the company will be ordered to pay triple the cost.” So has Regan at last slammed the hammer down on this feckless firm? One might rather say he’s closing the barn door after the horse has gone, but better late, I guess, than never.

Mutual aid groups and organizers are helping the folks in East Palestine. As Candice Bernd reported in Truthout March 6, some locals resent the way the feds and the train company regard them, namely, as a “bunch of stupid Appalachians that are broke and dirt poor with no teeth,” which they are not. Even worse, Bernd cites attempts at “co-optation by far-right Republican politicians and neofascist recruiting efforts by Patriot Front, the National Justice Party, the Patriotic Socialist Front and the Proud Boys.”

A month on, and things still stink, literally, in East Palestine. Pets and wildlife died in great numbers – over 43,000 fish and animals killed – after the derailment, while residents report coughs, rashes, headaches, nausea and sore throats. One local, Wade Lovett, told the New York Post February 25 that he can barely breathe. “Doctors say I definitely have the chemicals in me but there’s no one in town who can run the toxological tests…It’s hard to breathe, especially at night. My chest hurts so much at night I feel like I’m drowning. I cough up phlegm a lot. I lost my job because the doctor won’t release me to go to work.”

One woman, who returned a week after the crash, was in her house for a half hour. “When we left,” she told CNN February 17, “I had a rash on my skin on my arm, and my eyes were burning for a few days after that.” She also told CNN: “That’s when we decided we couldn’t raise our kids here.” So a greedy railroad that wouldn’t pay peanuts for upkeep, but could douse political parasites with hundreds of millions of dollars, has forced people to abandon their homes to survive.

Astonishingly, plans are afoot to re-inject these venomous chemicals into the air, water and land. According to the Guardian March 4, contaminated soil “is being sent to a nearby incinerator with a history of clean air violations.” One former EPA official, Kyla Bennett, called this plan “horrifying,” because it will spread the toxins widely around an area already badly contaminated. Bennett “slammed Norfolk Southern and state and federal officials over the decision.” Such burning is especially dangerous because “dioxin and PFAS haven’t been tested for by the EPA and they do not incinerate easily or cannot be incinerated.” So it looks like those desperate stragglers remaining in East Palestine can thank the railroad and the EPA for yet another round of poisoning.

Unfortunately, in the ways that count, the Biden administration continues to boost the railroads. In a case against Norfolk Southern brought by a cancer-stricken former rail worker, the Biden justice department supports the company, even though, according to the Lever February 16, a supreme court decision favoring Norfolk Southern “could create a national precedent limiting where workers and consumers can bring cases against corporations.”

This is no surprise. The finality and speed with which  Biden crushed the rail-workers’ strike shined a painful light on the truth: ordinary people have few friends in the white house. True trade unionists have none.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.