Wednesday, March 1, 2023
Homenri news“Traveling bombs”: Ohio disaster shows how both parties enable 21st-century rail robber...

“Traveling bombs”: Ohio disaster shows how both parties enable 21st-century rail robber barons

In the two weeks since the Norfolk Southern rail disaster, which resulted in the release of a vast quantity of vinyl chloride and other highly toxic chemicals into the air and water in the borderlands of Ohio and Pennsylvania, elected officials from both parties have blasted the Norfolk Southern railroad.

They are certainly a worthy target.

Norfolk Southern, as one of just seven Class One railroads, down from close to 50 in the 1980s, reportedly increased its payout to its shareholders by some 4,500 percent while it cut its railroad workforce by a third before the Ohio catastrophe. This was achieved by slashing costs, successfully resisting regulation, and deploying more costly technology as the rail carrier made their trains longer, heavier, and much more profitable.

Yet, America’s elected leadership from both political parties don’t have clean hands either.

As the toxic cloud heads east, across North America, with the jet stream generating anxiety and possible contamination along the way, we need to look at how the rail monopoly got a stranglehold on the Congress, the executive branch and federal regulators.

As Lever journalists David Sirota, Rebecca Burns, Julia Rock, and Matthew Cunningham-Cook observed in a recent New York Times op-ed, while the “precise cause of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine is still under investigation… we know it occurred in an industry that tolerates too many preventable derailments and fights too many safety regulations.”

The Lever team’s op-Ed continues, “During the Obama and Trump administrations, the rail industry successfully lobbied against stricter rules for trains carrying flammable chemicals, and against more advanced brakes that experts and the rail industry itself have said could lessen the severity of derailments.”

But the corrosion of our politics by corporate interests extends into our state capitals like Trenton where lawmakers have been unable to move a commonsense rail safety bill for over a decade.

Consider that it was over a decade on November 30, 2012, that a southbound Consolidated Rail Corporation freight train derailed in Paulsboro, in Gloucester County, adjacent to the Delaware River.

Four rail cars fell into the Mantua Creek, after the freight train passed over a moveable rail bridge that had not been properly secured. One tank car was breached, releasing approximately 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride. Local, state, and federal emergency personnel responded on scene. A voluntary evacuation zone was established for the area, and nearby schools were ordered to immediately take shelter and seal off their buildings.

“Eyewitnesses reported a vapor cloud engulfed the scene immediately following the accident,” the National Transportation Safety Board reported. “On the day of the accident, 28 area residents sought medical attention for possible vinyl chloride exposure. The train crew and numerous emergency responders were also exposed to vinyl chloride. Equipment damage estimates were $451,000. The emergency response and remediation costs totaled about $30 million.”

The NTSB probe flagged multiple gaps and lapses in training, compliance as well as incident management that contributed to derailment and a botched response. The safety agency found there was no “comprehensive safety management program that would have identified and mitigated the risks associated with the continued operation of the bridge despite multiple bridge malfunctions of increasing frequency.”

The NTSB analysis continued. “Contributing to the consequences of the accident was the failure of the incident commander to implement established hazardous materials response protocols for worker protection and community exposure to the vinyl chloride release.”

June 6, 2013, the Quebec village of Lac-Mégantec was incinerated and dozens of its residents killed when a driverless freight train with over 70 tanker cars loaded with oil from North Dakota derailed and crashed.

Jeff Tittel was the executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey at the time. He recalls that the Paulsboro derailment and Lac-Mégantec helped to validate concerns being raised by environmental groups as the U.S. embraced fracking as rail and pipelines became a focal point.

“With New Jersey being the corridor state that it is, we have these trains coming through all the time to our refineries and chemical plants,” Tittel told InsiderNJ.  “We started twelve years ago with the Bakken oil trains coming into New Jersey to Conoco Phillips and Conoco had expanded their bays to allow for that transfer—there was the Pilgrim Pipeline which would bring Bakken crude down from Albany with the barges coming down the Hudson, so the transshipment of highly flammable chemicals and hydrocarbons was a big issue and then we had the big Paulsboro derailment.”

Working with then Senate Majority Leader Lorretta Weinberg, environmentalists supported a comprehensive rail safety bill that addressed the long list of gaps and vulnerabilities that investigators had flagged after Paulsboro.

“What came out of Paulsboro was a train safety bill that had four pieces to it: the notification of emergency services when these trains are coming in; a response plan in case there is a spill or accident with a hazmat clean-up plan and liability insurance; track inspections and more safety monitoring in terms of the trains coming; and a public notice component.”

Tittel points out that as in the East Palestine, Ohio Norfolk Southern wreck, where the local first responders on the scene were overwhelmingly volunteers, “80 percent of the fire departments in New Jersey are volunteer especially when you get into small towns in rural areas in South Jersey.”

According to the US Fire Service 2021 National Needs Assessment, volunteer firefighters in towns the size of East Palestine are in short supply with an average of 6.7 firefighters available on weekdays, compared to 11.4 on the weekend.

And as it turns out, they are not that well-equipped.

When it comes to providing a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus [SCBA] for firefighters, the US Fire Service reports, “more than half (53 percent) of all fire departments cannot equip everyone with SCBA. Departments protecting under 9,999 people have the highest rates of unmet need for SCBA equipment.”

“The whole idea is we wanted training and mitigation, hazard, and cleanup plans to all be in place in case of a spill,” Tittel said adding that the proposed package borrowed from a similar measure that was enacted in California that included a fee assessed on the hazardous cargo

“The fee on the trans-shipment would have been used to pay for all these programs—upgrades of equipment and fixing the rail lines and it had survived a federal court challenge and that was the first thing they stripped out of the bill,” Tittel said.

Gov. Christie vetoed the bill and Gov. Murphy’s press office did not respond to a query about the latest version of the legislation.

“Christie’s veto of this bill is unconscionable, reckless, and dangerous,” wrote Sierra Club’s Tittel wrote after Christie vetoed the bill. “He seems to care more about oil companies than the safety of the people of New Jersey. The bill was a compromise that everyone worked on and an important step in the right direction to deal with these dangerous bomb trains.”

“Believe me, no one is more frustrated than I am,” said Weinberg in response to a query from InsiderNJ about the status of her legislation after the East Palestine disaster. “Watching NJ transit reform being undone, lack of urgency about train, safety, and a few things left out of the sexual harassment legislation – just to name a few.”

Last year, a few months after Weinberg retired from the state senate, she wrote an op-ed for warned that “unbeknownst to most New Jerseyans, trains hauling highly volatile crude oil go rumbling through New Jersey neighborhoods at all hours of the day including densely populated Newark and Jersey City.”

Weinberg continued. “How destructive can these traveling “bombs” be? Just look at the 2013 derailment of a 72-car oil train carrying Bakken crude, the same type of oil being transported through New Jersey communities, that occurred in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. It caused a major disaster with a massive explosion and fire that killed 47 people and destroyed approximately 40 buildings.

“Given the population density of our state, the deadly hazards of Bakken crude oil shipments are of particular concern to residents of New Jersey, as thousands of these rail cars now pass through our communities every week, including heavily populated areas like Essex, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Somerset, Middlesex, and Union counties.

Weinberg reminded readers that the “the vapors from a spill, even without a fire or explosion, pose a serious health risk, including exposure to cancer-causing benzene; toluene, which has been linked to nerve damage; and hydrocarbons that have been linked to lung damage.”

While the former Senate Majority Leader expressed regret, she “couldn’t get the Bill across ac the finish line in my time, I’ve never stopped advocating for action, and I am proud to see the new representatives in my district also take up the mantle.”

Right now, it’s our volunteer first responders and the residents of our corridor communities that are most vulnerable to an event that could cast a lifelong shadow over their health as dark as the one cast over tens of thousands of 9/11 WTC responders and survivors who were told by the US EPA the downtown air was “safe to breathe.”

The record is clear, if and when there’s another East Palestine or even a Paulsboro, there needs to not only be accountability for the railroads but for the elected officials who continue to enable them.

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