Eight months later, there’s still no accountability from Northern Southern for the dangerous conditions that led to the disaster. How can rail workers and East Palestine residents band together?
it’s been eight months since a catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment turned life upside down for people living in and around East Palestine, Ohio. While East Palestine has faded from the headlines, though, residents are still in desperate need of help, which they say they are not getting from Norfolk Southern or from their government. What has been done in the last eight months to help the people of East Palestine and to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for this disaster? What is being done on the legislative side to address the conditions on the railroads that have run railroad workers into the ground and put communities like East Palestine at perpetual risk, all while ensuring record profits for the rail companies and their shareholders? How can railroad workers and East Palestine residents work together to make sure catastrophes like this never happen again? In this special livestream, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Chris and Jessica Albright, two residents of East Palestine, and retired railroad engineer and former Iowa State Representative Jeff Kurtz.
While President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have praised a railroad safety bill from Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and JD Vance, a Republican, the Senate proposal has also encountered resistance. Top GOP leaders in Congress have been hesitant to support it, and the bill has faced some opposition from the railroad industry, which holds significant sway in Washington..
As a result, it remains an open question whether the derailment that shattered life in East Palestine will become a catalyst for action. And for Republicans, the fight poses a larger test of political identity, caught between their traditional support for industry and their desire to champion voters in rural America.
“These rail lines pass frequently through Republican areas, small towns with a lot of Republican voters,” Vance told The Associated Press. “How can we look them in the eye and say, we’re doing a good job by you? If we choose the railroads over their own interests, we can’t.”
In East Palestine, a village of approximately 5,000 people near the Pennsylvania state line, the railroad has reopened both its tracks in the area but the cleanup continues. Norfolk Southern estimates that its response to the derailment will cost at least $803 million to remove all the hazardous chemicals, help the community and deal with lawsuits and penalties related to the derailment.
But residents still worry about the long-term health effects. Many are looking to Congress to act, hoping it will prevent another community from enduring the trauma, fear and upheaval they have endured.
Jami Wallace, who has lived in East Palestine for 46 years along with her extended family, has helped lead a community group called the Unity Council to represent residents’ concerns and push for government action.
“If our legislators don’t take East Palestine as an example of some of the reforms that need to be in the regulations that need to be put on, you know, the railroad industry, then they’re fools,” Wallace said. “Again, we don’t want to suffer for nothing.”
Rail labor groups say the widespread cuts the industry has made in the name of efficiency in recent years have made railroads riskier, so they believe reforms are needed to reduce the more than 1,000 derailments that happen every year because just one can be disastrous.
“There have been more than 60 high-profile derailments since East Palestine, including multiple in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Montana,” said the Transportation Trades Department coalition that includes all the rail unions. “Through it all, freight rail companies have maintained their fundamental disregard for public safety. Safety is just a buzzword to the railroads.”
“We’ve always been encouraging members of Congress to take their time to make sure they have the facts and the data and the technical analysis coming from NTSB and other regulators so that we can have a fact-based conversation,” CSX CEO Joe Hinrichs said. “All of us want safety in the rail network and in our communities.”
The railroads say there isn’t any data to show one-person crews are riskier than two-person crews. They also point out that the East Palestine train actually had three crew members aboard when it derailed.
Sen. John Thune, who is currently the Republican whip but in 2003 and 2004 worked as a lobbyist for Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad, said in a Senate committee debate that it was important to hold Norfolk Southern, whose train derailed on Feb. 3, accountable for the derailment. He also voiced support for “pragmatic reforms.” But Thune ultimately opposed the bill from Vance and Brown and cautioned against the “cost of regulation” on railroads.
“There is not much in the proposed legislation that would address the derailment in East Palestine based on what we know so far,” Thune said.