It’s been over two weeks since a burn-off of hazardous chemicals after a train derailment caused the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, to flee their homes. The response from the White House has been oddly anemic, until Sunday, when Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg wrote a strongly worded letter to Norfolk Southern.
That’s right folks; a strongly worded letter. Seriously, Mayor Pete may have even hurt some feelings with this one, from ABC News:
“The derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials near East Palestine, Ohio, has upended the lives of numerous residents, many of whom continue to worry about their immediate health and safety as well as the long-term effects of the dangerous materials released near their homes,” Buttigieg said. “They fear for their future, as do thousands of American communities and neighborhoods that sit along railway lines.”
“The future must not resemble the past when it comes to your company’s and your industry’s follow-through on support for stringent safety policies,” he added. “Major derailments in the past have been followed by calls for reform — and by vigorous resistance by your industry to increased safety measures. This must change.”
Buttigieg promised changes to regulations and urged the railroad to support those changes rather than lobby against new safety measures as it had in the past. At least our government can muster the wherewithal to sternly ask our corporate overlords for some sort of cooperation in keeping Americans safe. And it will only take about two-and-a-half weeks after the poisoning of your town!
Not that it will do much good. It’s almost like those railroad workers congress and President Biden forced into an unfair contract were on to something when they threatened to strike over safety regulations, low staffing, and a focus on profits to the detriment of worker and public safety. Workers even warned the railroad and regulators for years specifically about the line that derailed Feb. 3 just outside the small town of East Palestine, only to be ignored.
On the night of Feb. 3, a train carrying hazardous chemicals suffered from an overheating wheel bearing right before the train derailed, according to a preliminary investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board. It’s a failure the Railroad Workers United union called a “a 19th-century style mechanical failure of the axle.” Fifty cars derailed, including ones carrying hazardous chemicals like vinyl chloride. Clean-up workers lit the chemical on fire in order to prevent an explosion, sending toxic chemicals into the air, earth, and water.
An alphabet soup of local and federal agencies are helping with clean-ups and health assessments. Officials with Norfolk Southern and the National Transportation Safety Board in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency have issued an all-clear to residents willing to return to their homes. However residents are still reporting burning eyes, headaches, strange chemical rainbow sheens in local creeks and myriads of other concerning signs that the town is not as safe as officials say. Members of the community who can afford it have turned to independent testing after losing all trust in both the government and Norfolk Southern, The New York Times reports:
When a team came by the morning of Valentine’s Day to test the air quality in Maggie Guglielmo’s store a few blocks from where a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed this month, the smell was undeniable.
“The air monitoring team left within 10 minutes due to the unpleasant/overwhelming odor,” the team of government and private environmental experts wrote in its report, describing a “super glue/pool/fruity-like odor.” But there was no detection of significant amounts of vinyl chloride, a colorless gas carried by the train, or other toxic chemicals.
Buttigieg is also planning a trip to East Palestine “...when the time is right,” according to CNN. But the right time to serve the people of America, Mr. Secretary, is when the disaster happens. Seems like if the town is safe enough for residents, it’s safe enough for the Secretary of Transportation. It doesn’t help that former president and 2024 Republican nominee hopeful Donal Trump may beat him to it. Trump will arrive Wednesday. Meanwhile, Biden managed to visit Ukraine, a trip East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway called a “slap to the face,” The Hill reports.
Of course, the White House isn’t totally to blame. Perhaps Mayor Conaway should have a chat with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who seemed quite proud of his rejection of federal help, noting last week:
Look, the President called me and said, “Anything you need.” I have not called him back after that conversation. I will not hesitate to do that if we’re seeing a problem or anything, but I’m not seeing it.
Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, told NPR in an interview on Thursday that 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.
We will update this report as new information continues to come out of East Palestine, Ohio.
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