Ohio train wreck worsened by DOT


Eli Nordstrom, guest writer

East Palestine, Ohio, a small town just on the border with Pennsylvania, has been wracked by a disastrous chemical spill after a Norfolk Southern train derailed, causing a chemical fire. Despite several governmental agencies claiming that the residents of Palestine are safe, there have been numerous reports of dead fish and animals in the area. It is unclear as to why anybody, especially the United States government would make the preposterous claim that living near one of the largest chemical fires in recent memory is safe, yet this remains the official narrative at the time of this writing. 

To add insult to injury, Norfolk Southern, the multi-billion dollar railway company that caused this tragedy has offered the tiny town of five thousand people a mere $25,000, which amounts to just $5 per person.

As of now, the Palestine disaster is still breaking news. Regardless of whatever new details may be unearthed in the near future about the crisis, there is one lesson that we can clearly make out: yet again, organized labor was right. 

The main reason why experts believe the Norfolk Southern train to have derailed was due to a ludicrously outdated braking system. The braking system that is currently in use was first developed during the civil war. That’s right: the richest nation on the face of the planet still runs its trains on a braking system from 160 years ago. However, groups like the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Trade Union have previously come out in favor of an electronically controlled pneumatic braking system. This new system would have been safer if implemented. Even the government thinks so. According to a report from the US Department of Transportation in March of last year, “Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brake technology can improve both safety and braking performance of trains.“ 

Nevertheless, an Obama-era plan to require train companies to convert to ECP brakes was scrapped when rail companies lobbied the Trump administration in 2017. The current Biden administration is also packed full of stooges for the industrialist class. Pete Buttigieg, a career politician with presidential ambitions, is the current Secretary of the Department of Transportation. Despite not having any background in statewide or national politics, and no background in the construction or transportation industries, he has been appointed to head one of the nation’s most powerful regulatory bodies. In the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern disaster, Secretary Buttigieg has continued to consider an industry-backed plan that would lessen the number of safety inspections on trains with ECP brake systems. Secretary Buttigieg has also conceded that “there will be more derailments.”

The response from the Department of Transportation and from the government as a whole has revealed the do-nothing nature of our country’s leadership. When Americans suffer from one of the worst healthcare systems in the industrialized world, the government does nothing. When the climate is rapidly deteriorating, putting us on the brink of ecological collapse, the government does nothing. When our foreign policy has put us at risk of nuclear escalation with Russia and China, the government does nothing and maintains its disastrous course. Pete Buttieg’s concessions to big business are a microcosm of the failure of our national leadership. 

This whole crisis could have been avoided if our government had listened to the concerns of the unions. If the government cared at all for the common people of this country, those people in East Palestine wouldn’t have a massive chemical fire right outside their homes right now. Unfortunately, our nation’s government on a national level is beholden to big money interests, like the railroad industry. The worst part is that this isn’t the only incident like this in recent memory. 

Just recently in September, President Biden and his cohort of corporate cronies steamrolled an attempt by organized labor to win railway workers their right to sick days. Joe Biden forced through a plan to give rail workers a higher wage, with no sick days involved in the deal. Joe Biden, who has spent his whole career masquerading as a friend of organized labor has repeatedly shown himself to be the opposite. A congressional push by the progressive elements of the Democratic party to provide paid sick leave to the railroad workers was blocked by fellow Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The right for a worker to stay home when they’re sick was snuffed out not just by the obviously reactionary Republican party, but also by Democrats.

Could it be any clearer, that your government does not work for you? Your elected officials would sooner listen to the concerns of lobbyists and consultants than they would yours. The voters elected them, but have had very little say in what decisions are made. When congress voted on whether or not to give railroad workers the right to stay at home while they’re sick, Congress voted based on how it would affect corporate profits. When the Department of Transportation deliberated on whether or not to require ECP brakes on our trains, they once again decided to prioritize corporate profits. 

It is an outrage that such a predictable crisis was allowed to happen in East Palestine, but it is also a warning. How long before the equally predictable disasters of climate change, reckless banking, and geopolitical escalation come to bear? It’s time for not just new leaders in Washington, but also a new kind of leader. We have to exercise our democratic rights in order to remove the corporate sellouts from power. If we don’t, then tragedies like the one in East Palestine won’t be the last, and nothing will be done to prevent future catastrophes.