Let’s Prioritize People Over Profits

Joe Ramlet, opinions editor

The United States was founded on the concepts of freedom and entrepreneurship — founded with the idea that the government would step in to protect the interests and safety of the common American against the power of industries. Far too often, for far too long, that hasn’t been the case.

On Feb. 3, rail operator Norfolk Southern said one of their trains with about 50 cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio — a town of about 5,000 located halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. 11 of these rail cars contained hazardous materials including vinyl chloride, used in making PVC, and locals were encouraged to evacuate due to the risk of a massive explosion. On Feb. 6, officials conducted what they called a “controlled release” of contents to prevent an explosion by instead igniting the cars, releasing a plume of thick, black smoke that darkened the sky.

Since the evacuation order was lifted on Feb. 8 and residents returned home, more questions remain. Vinyl chloride in its gaseous form is a highly potent carcinogen, but what’s even worse is that it releases phosgene when burned — a poisonous gas used in chemical warfare during World War I. Locals are reporting a burning sensation in their eyes and lungs and thousands of fish and animals are dropping dead. Officials purportedly suggest municipal water is safe to drink but advise homeowners with private wells should only use bottled water indefinitely.

It’s easy to write this off as an accident — after all, trains derail almost every day around the country. But the United States has a long history of frequent environmental disasters and a failure to curtail industry in order to protect livelihoods and save lives. Toxic dumping at Love Canal, cancerous radiation at Three Mile Island and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are but a few examples. DuPont used PFOA to manufacture Teflon with the knowledge it was harmful for over two decades. When the women working in the West Virginia manufacturing plant reported birth defects in their children, the company’s response was to only let men work in the factory.

The issue here is that we continue to let companies get away with incidents like these in the name of the free market. Norfolk Southern posted $3 billion in profits last year, resisting federal regulations alongside other railroad companies in favor of cutting costs. Regulators have sided with industry lobbyists to water down safety guidelines regarding the transport of hazardous materials, effectively treating poisonous vinyl chloride the same as a tanker full of milk. One such proposal was to require electronic braking on flammable trains as opposed to traditional air brakes. Though the investigation is ongoing, preliminary reports show a possible cause of the derailment could be a problem with some axles on the trail cars. Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration, told the Lever, “Would ECP brakes have reduced the severity of this accident? Yes.”

We have to stop accepting the status quo and stop accepting that industry can manipulate the government to choose profits over people. A statement from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) said, “the expected costs of requiring ECP brakes would be significantly higher than the expected benefits of the requirement.” I’m fairly certain that, though it was an accident waiting to happen, PHMSA officials weren’t counting on an incident taking place like that in East Palestine. You can’t put a price on the human and environmental impacts of disasters like this, but it’s wrong to ignore these consequences in a cost-benefit analysis. In the end, it boils down to what I can’t say any better than what then-New York State Department of Health Commissioner David Axelrod called Love Canal in 1988: a “national symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of concern for future generations.”