How the Government Failed East Palestine, Ohio

Show Notes

The environmental catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio had many causes. Government incompetence and neglect played a role, as did both excessive regulation and deregulation under different administrations. Corporate “efficiencies” as well as domestic politics created the conditions that caused a terrible accident. The response was to prevent one type of disaster by creating another type of disaster. On the most recent episode of The Drill Down, investigative journalists Peter Schweizer and Eric Eggers explore the dilemma.

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train hauling hazardous and flammable industrial chemicals derailed in the town of East Palestine, Ohio. The 151-car freight train caught fire when it derailed, creating an explosion risk from tanker cars filled with the chemicals. Ohio Governor DeWine’s office said that “The vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars are currently unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes.” Officials decided that the best course of action would be a controlled burn of the toxic chemicals to prevent a possible explosion. Before the operation could take place, about half of the residents of East Palestine were told to evacuate the area.

It took days for the national media or authorities in the federal government to take notice. Peter notes that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and the Environmental Protection Agency initially downplayed the scale of the disaster. After the controlled burn of the chemicals from the train, those people evacuated from the vicinity of the crash were permitted to return two days later. East Palestine residents have reported a permeating odor, despite assurances from officials that it was safe to return. Some are staying away until the government does more.  Some residents have reported rashes, burning eyes, and other symptoms.

Prof. Peter DeCarlo of Johns Hopkins University.

Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, told reporters from NPR he would be “especially concerned” for the health of his two children. He said the air monitoring and sampling does not give him the data he needs to determine if emissions are still coming from the site.”

“Honestly, with the data that I’ve seen on the [Environmental Protection Agency] response site, the answer is no,” he said about whether he would be comfortable with returning.

The freight train originated in Madison, Illinois and was massive, counting 151 cars, measuring 9,300 feet long, and weighing about 18,000 tons when it derailed. And, as you might expect, safety rules around such a large conveyance have been fought over for years.

In 2014, after an similar accidents in Canada and in New Jersey, the Obama Transportation Department imposed stiffer rules for trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous, flammable materials. One of the regulations required advanced braking systems for the high hazard flammable trains. Under pressure from the rail companies, the rules were narrowly tailored to a certain type of flammable train, one with at least 70 cars of flammable liquids or gasses. It was because this adjustment that the Norfolk Southern train was not classified as a high-hazard flammable train, as pointed out by Senators Rubio (R-FL) and Vance (R-OH).

The Trump administration, in a 2017 deregulation effort, ended the Obama-era rule completely because of the calculated financial burden to rail companies. However, after the rule was axed, the Associated Press found that “Trump’s administration miscalculated the potential benefits of putting better brakes on trains that haul explosive fuels when it scrapped an Obama-era rule over cost concerns.”

“A government analysis used to justify the cancellation omitted up to $117 million in estimated future damages from train derailments that could be avoided by using electronic brakes.”

It was not the first problem the Norfolk Southern train had experienced on the route. According to CBS News, it broke down at least once before the Feb. 3 derailment, according to employees familiar with the matter. They said 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.”

“We shouldn’t be running trains that are 150 car lengths long,” one of the employees said. “There should be some limitations to the weight and the length of the trains. In this case, had the train not been 18,000 tons, it’s very likely the effects of the derailment would have been mitigated.”

Peter and Eric note the Biden administration’s highly touted $1.7 trillion “Infrastructure Act,” and wonder how much of that money should be going to efforts to make such massive cargoes safer on the rails. Norfolk Southern will be facing huge lawsuits from Ohio residents who lost about 3,500 fish and many farm animals. Residents lost their livelihoods and may suffer long term health effects from the mess its train caused.