The East Palestine, Ohio, derailment of a freight train carrying hazardous materials has become headline news because of a potent mixture of health, politics, and the health of our politics. But might something good come from it?
We need to find out everything that happened. And that starts with an investigation into the practices and safety records of the freight rail company Norfolk Southern, whose train derailed.
Those who live in the immediate proximity of the spilled toxic chemicals, which were then burned, have every right to be worried about their health and safety and those of their families. They understandably want and deserve answers from their government. So far, health officials have tried to reassure the public that the long-term effects will be minimal.
Videos and photos showed an oily inferno of burning vinyl chloride and other chemicals towering over East Palestine, Ohio. Now residents and local leaders are worried about the longtime health consequences of the train crash, fire and spill.
Just how dangerous is the Ohio derailment disaster? Why it’s confusing.
Experts and national authorities largely minimized the health concerns, even as toxic chemicals killed wildlife. Why experts aren’t
In the immediate aftermath of an event like this, it is important that the scene is the domain of experts and not politicians looking for photo-ops. We need action, not aggrandizement, and progress, not preening. But it is also important for people to feel that their pain and suffering are being seen. So there is always a balancing act for high-ranking government officials over when and how they should show up.
In a highly politically conservative place like East Palestine, and in a highly partisan moment like the present, it was to be expected that any perceived missteps by the Biden administration would produce a heated backlash. Republicans looking for openings for a line of political attack on Biden (and on Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who many see as a rising star in the Democratic Party) have predictably pounced on the idea that the administration is not paying sufficient attention to these small-town Ohio residents. To be fair, if the roles were reversed, Democrats would have likely done something similar. That’s how it works when you’re the one in charge and something goes wrong.
But there are deeper currents involved beyond just the bickering over optics and attention. There is the matter of the event itself and its larger lessons.
By almost all definitions, it was an “accident,” in that no one on the train or elsewhere deliberately caused the derailment. Yet what does an “accident” really mean?
You sometimes hear that “there is no such thing as an accident.” The thinking behind that saying is that almost everything we call an accident is the result of a breakdown, by a person or a machine or a system, that could have been prevented. If a distracted driver, faulty wiring, or a lack of communication causes something to go horribly wrong, is it fair to call it an accident? In the case of the train derailment, investigators are honing in on a warning for an overheated wheel bearing as a possible cause.
When you look at “accidents” through this vantage point, you see that most of them could have been prevented. And the job of preventing future disasters often falls to a politically charged mechanism: government regulations. Regulations come in many forms, but part of what they are meant to do is shape the rules that promote safety — whether that of people or the environment. Regulations, by definition, limit what businesses and individuals can do. And restrictions are inherently unpopular with those who are being restricted.
Businesses, such as rail companies, airlines, manufacturers, and basically any big company or industry with clout, spend incredible sums of money lobbying against regulations. They argue that many of the limits they face are onerous, capricious, and ill-conceived and diminish innovation. And sometimes they are correct.
How to balance risk with other metrics like economic output, employment, etc., is part of a complicated calculus between the rule makers and those whose activities are constrained. But there is also a general recognition that without any regulations, our food wouldn’t be safe to eat, our medicine safe to take, our roads safe to drive, or our buildings safe to house us. There would be more widespread child labor and dangerous workplaces. There would be more trains going off the track, both literally and figuratively.
And here is where the derailment in East Palestine can be seen in a complicated light. The Republican Party, in particular, has railed (no pun intended) against regulations for decades. The Trump administration actually rolled back freight train regulation and boasted about it. Did that move make the Ohio derailment more likely? The Washington Post recently concluded it didn’t, but that could change as we learn more.
Regardless, this disaster shines a spotlight on the power of big business to set the rules, including in ways that can directly impact the health and safety of Americans and people around the world. And increasingly, there are questions about what that means, including among some Republicans. Can this incident galvanize positive change? Can the politics around it help actually break political stalemates on rail safety?
A column by two progressive op-ed writers in The Washington Post answered those questions in the affirmative under the headline, “5 good points the right is making about the Ohio train disaster.” The argument from Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent is framed by the following:
“As some Republicans are trying to demonstrate a more populist, less reflexively anti-government bent, this provides an opportunity for them to show that they mean what they say. After all, it’s easy for Republicans to pretend to be anti-corporate by criticizing a company for being ‘woke.’ It’s something else entirely to support government action that challenges unfettered corporate power and genuinely improves people’s lives. This is where the new breed of conservative populism often seems to wither.
But this disaster has prompted some on the right to step up and embrace big ideas that could be the basis of both a new perspective on the relationship between business and government and cooperation with Democrats.”
There is always a chance all this ends up being another case of mostly empty rhetoric, that the impetus for meaningful reforms in freight rail will falter, especially once the corporate lobbying effort swings into full gear. But sometimes a singular moment coalesces circumstances for actual change. It’s easy to be cynical, but we can hope for something better.
All the politicians who really care about blue collar rail workers and the safety of communities like East Palestine should step up and push for reform. Here’s a chance to prove you mean what you say. The goal should be better rules, not bitter partisanship. If we descend once more into a quagmire of the latter, it should be clear why.
— Read on steady.substack.com/p/not-just-an-accident