- Matthew Cunningham-Cookresearcher and writer for The Lever.
We look at the failures that led to the massive train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that blanketed the town with a toxic brew of spilled chemicals and gases, fouling the air, polluting waterways and killing thousands of fish and frogs. Residents are suffering ailments including respiratory distress, sore throats, burning eyes and rashes, all with unknown long-term consequences. Many say they do not trust officials who tell them it is safe to return to their homes. This catastrophe could have been prevented, had it not been for lax regulation and the outsized lobbying power of corporations like Norfolk Southern, says Matthew Cunningham-Cook, a researcher and writer at The Lever who is part of a team that is reporting on the disaster.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the failures that led to the massive train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that blanketed the town with a toxic brew of spilled chemicals and gases, fouling the air, polluting waterways, killing thousands of fish and frogs. Residents are suffering ailments ranging from respiratory distress, sore throats, burning eyes and rashes, all with unknown long-term consequences. Many say they don’t trust officials who are telling them it’s safe to return home.
KRISTINA FERGUSON: We have to have proper testing. We cannot get a two and a two-three, and then your papers say one.
REPORTER: You’re not satisfied with the testing that’s been done at your house?
KRISTINA FERGUSON: No, and you’re going to smell it as soon as you go into my house.
JERRY HUGHES: I don’t feel safe taking my kids into town, especially to the house. Like, my neighbor right across the street from me, literally, got diagnosed yesterday with chemical pneumonia.
ROSEMARY STIDMON: What does the government do? Whose responsibility is it? Because I’m not quite sure that Norfolk Southern is really doing much.
AMY GOODMAN: Residents of East Palestine met Thursday with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Regan, as he visited impacted areas and gave an update on air and water testing.
MICHAEL REGAN: Boots on the ground leading robust air quality testing, including the advanced technological aspect plane and a mobile analytical laboratory in and around East Palestine. Since the fire went out, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment. … As it relates to water, EPA is supporting Ohio and the local government in determining what impacts the spill has had on surface and groundwater, and ensuring that the derailment has not had an effect on drinking water supplies.
AMY GOODMAN: The two-mile-long freight train that derailed in East Palestine was operated by the railroad giant Norfolk Southern. It’s been called a “bomb train” since its 141 cars included tankers that can hold up to 32,000 gallons each of highly flammable toxic chemicals. In addition to the spill, an out-of-control fire raged for days, followed by a so-called controlled burn of the train’s most toxic cargo, releasing a huge mushroom cloud of fire and smoke.
This catastrophe could have been prevented, had it not been for lax regulation and the massive lobbying power of corporations like Norfolk Southern. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg claimed in a tweet, “We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation (like the braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015).” Meanwhile, critics say Buttigieg could use his existing rule-making authority to expand the definition of a high-hazard flammable train to cover trains like the one in Ohio.
This comes as the Biden administration is siding with Norfolk Southern in a case against a former rail worker now pending before the Supreme Court that could allow corporations to restrict where people, including the victims of the disaster in East Palestine, can file lawsuits against them. More than 12,000 trains carry hazardous materials across the United States each day. And on Thursday, another Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed outside of Detroit.
For more, we’re joined by Matthew Cunningham-Cook, researcher and writer for The Lever, who’s part of a team following all of this very closely.
Matthew, welcome back to Democracy Now! I mean, there is so much to ask you about right now. First of all, I don’t know if people realize this train in East Palestine, that was carrying chemicals like vinyl chloride, that, when exploded, become phosgene, the World War I chemical weapon — this train was two miles long. Why don’t you start there?
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah. Trains have been getting longer and longer, and it’s occurring at the same time that the railroad workforce is getting smaller and smaller. And these were exactly the concerns that the rail unions raised last year with the Biden administration, with railroads, with the public surrounding their contract negotiations and the need for paid sick leave. So that’s the broader context.
And then there’s the fact that the industry was successful in reducing the scope of this high-hazard flammable train definition, and they’ve been successful at resisting the widespread implementation of revolutionary new braking technology called electronically controlled pneumatic braking, over 15 years old. The railroads initially championed these new brakes, but once they figured out the cost, even though it was only $3 billion, so that’s less than 3% of the amount that the railroads have spent on stock buybacks in the last decade, they lobbied hard against any rules that would mandate their implementation.
And that’s a huge problem, because right now railroads use 1868 technology, technology from 1868 to brake trains. And it’s basically a ricochet effect. So, the engine brakes, and then the first car brakes, and then the second car brakes, and then the third car brakes, which means that the train doesn’t all stop at the same time. What that does is, when heavier train cars bump into lighter train cars, which is very common because they’re not properly ordering the train cars because of the massive cutbacks in the railroad workforce, that creates what’s called in-train forces, which destabilize and derail trains. And Railroad Workers United, this cross-union advocacy group of railroad workers, has said that that almost certainly played a significant role in the derailment here, on top of the issues with the axle that was on fire.
So, yeah, you know, and then Norfolk Southern, in particular, really seems like it has one of the worst safety records on the rails. There has been repeated incidents in Ohio of Norfolk Southern derailments. They had two derailments last year that they still haven’t picked up the costs for, even though they explicitly pledged that they would. And unfortunately, you know, you really have a transportation secretary that appears resistant to taking action. So, about —
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about what Buttigieg could do. Let’s talk about what President Biden could do.
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Because it’s a very interesting history, where you have these safety features that, under the Obama administration, they were going into effect. Well —
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — many years later, actually, in 2023.
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened under Trump, the role of South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune, and then — in reversing all of this — the campaign contributions of Norfolk Southern, $6-what million to Republican campaigns, and then what Biden and Buttigieg could do.
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah. So, yes, the Obama administration proposed rules that would expand the use of this ECP braking technology. They were not expansive enough to cover the type of train that derailed in Ohio, but they would have gone significantly further towards implementing it across the industry. So, right now only Amtrak — most Amtrak trains use this braking technology, and then trains that transport nuclear waste are required to use this technology, as well.
The railroad industry funneled, yes, over $6 million into Senate Republicans’ campaigns in 2016. John Thune was one of the top, who was at the time the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, was one of the highest recipients of railroad industry cash. He opposed this rule-making. The Trump administration, under Elaine Chao, who was the secretary of transportation, who’s the wife of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, rolled back the Obama administration’s very modest rules to expand this braking technology. And then, once Biden and Buttigieg [inaudible], even though rail unions, public safety advocates, environmental groups have advocated the expansion of rail safety rules, they have yet to take substantive action so far. So, it’s unfortunate, and it’s unclear why exactly that’s the case.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, Michael Regan, the EPA chief, going yesterday, two weeks after this catastrophe took place, to get an earful from residents. Now, we should say that was a day after the town hall meeting where Norfolk Southern refused to show up, saying they were afraid their own representatives would be in danger, to which many residents said, “You’re concerned about them being in danger? What about us?”
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah. I mean, I think that there is a real kind of question as to whether or not the EPA is — to whether or not the EPA is really monitoring the situation on the ground in a complete way. That’s a real question. At this point, we know that the EPA really fell down on the job in a really significant way after 9/11. We know that the EPA didn’t do the best that they could to protect residents in Flint. So, yeah, if I was a resident of East Palestine, I would really have some real questions as to how effectively the EPA was protecting me at this point.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about what Norfolk Southern faces. Years ago, a crash in North Carolina, I believe something like nine people died, many were injured. Ultimately, they paid something like, what, $4 million? They were fined? Talk about what they face and the lawsuits that are beginning right now and what they could be forced to — what did they promise? A million dollars to the town right now?
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah. Right now they’ve said they’ve already distributed over a million dollars to the town. Yeah, they’re facing class-action lawsuits. But, unfortunately, you know, what we know is that Department of Transportation fines are and Federal Railroad Administration fines are very limited. And so, the question of kind of real accountability is an open one, you know?
And I think that what Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern — I think he really sees his core constituency as not the public but his shareholders. And unfortunately, you know, the way that our society works is that it’s just about the next quarterly earnings report, how much money you can extract out of the infrastructure you already own, so that you can buy back more of your stock, so that you can pay more dividends, so that you can pay higher executive compensation, and that fines and class-action lawsuits, they’re ultimately a drop in the bucket compared to the extraordinary profits that these railroads collect from their workforce that’s overworked and, in large part, burnt out and infrastructure that is falling apart and is not being properly maintained, even though it’s owned directly by the railroads.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the recent ruling by Congress, supported by President Biden, that he signed off on, to stop a rail strike. How does that play in here?
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah. I mean, what we know is that when you have a lack of redundancy in workforces, when you have workers who are away from home for weeks at a time, when you have difficulty in filling thousands of vacant positions because the jobs just aren’t good enough — you know, 30 years ago, these were great jobs. That’s just not the case today, working harder and harder than ever before in conditions that are terrible. You know, there’s tons of engines that don’t have any heat at all. And when you have that situation, you’re going to have safety issues. And then, even beyond that, FreightWaves, a trade publication, reported yesterday that the five senior employees who were charged with preventing derailments have all left. All of those positions have left in the last — have been eliminated, effectively, in the last decade at Norfolk Southern.
So, yeah, you know, this is — what we know is that the rail unions, the rail workers have been championing commonsense safety improvements. The rail unions have been very active advocating for this braking technology. The contract proposals that the rail unions put forth around paid sick leave, around pay, around benefits would help the railroads recruit and retain qualified employees, while they’re spending billions and billions of dollars on stock buybacks, while they’re paying their executives $10 million, $15 million, $20 million a year.
And, unfortunately, there’s really — you know, it really just seems like the Biden administration just tried to split the difference. It’s like, “OK, well, the railroads are proposing this, and the unions are proposing this, so we’ll just kind of split the baby in half,” when, really, you know, what the rail unions were proposing was about kind of acknowledging decades and decades of deregulation, decades and decades of assaults on workers, the Trump administration’s organized, coordinated assault on any effective regulation of railroads, and the fact that workers just needed to MacGyver any response to that aggressive, dangerous, deregulatory agenda. And, unfortunately, yeah, you know, that’s the final thing, is that the Biden administration really didn’t seem to take what these over 100,000 rail workers were saying about the adequacy of this proposed contract really seriously, and instead —
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew —
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, who sent a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw criticizing the so-called controlled explosion. Right? You have the explosion. It releases chemicals. And then you have that so-called controlled burn. The letter says, “Prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion.”
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You also have, of course, the governor of Ohio, the state where this catastrophe took place, Mike DeWine. Assess his response, as well.
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah. So, we’re digging into this particular question right now about how exactly this controlled release happened. So I asked Governor DeWine, “Did you consult with other experts about whether or not this controlled release made sense, prior to approving Norfolk Southern’s request for a controlled release?” And his answer was, “Well, the Pentagon helped us with modeling.” And then his administration has refused to answer any other questions from The Lever about the controlled release. We’re digging into it now. I think it’s a very good question. I think Governor Shapiro is asking the right set of questions on this matter, and we’re going to continue digging into it.
What we do know is that — and we have an article that will be coming out either today or Monday about this, that looks at the DeWine administration’s response to this, looks at the DeWine administration’s connections to Norfolk Southern, and we really hope that we can — we’re definitely going to continue down this path of looking into why exactly this controlled release happened, which in and of itself is a propagandistic term. You know, it was a massive chemical burn; it wasn’t really a controlled release.
AMY GOODMAN: And let’s remember that they didn’t even release, Norfolk Southern, what the chemicals were — carcinogenic benzene, vinyl chloride, that is, phosgene, was a chemical weapon in World War I —
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — for more than a week after the derailment happened. What was it? Right in the middle of — on the day of the — of football.
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yes. Yeah. And —
AMY GOODMAN: Of the Super Bowl.
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yeah. And, you know, as folks, any chemical expert will tell you, also when these chemicals interact with each other, they can create new chemicals, you know? And so, that modeling has not been released about how exactly this interacts with other chemicals that are naturally occurring in the environment, with other chemicals that were on the railroad that were released. We don’t know. We don’t know what the effect was at all.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we haven’t even mentioned the NewsNation reporter, Evan Lambert, who’s with the National Association of Black Journalists and NewsNation, arrested, taken down on the ground as he reported from a DeWine news conference.
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: Yes. Yeah, no, I’m saying on another media appearance that it reminds me of my other experiences with logistics reporting, is that the logistics system in the U.S. is highly militarized. The railroads have the only fully privatized police force in the country. In this case, the reporter got into an argument with the state’s — a general, the head of the National Guard, and it really appears like that argument immediately devolved into a fairly violent arrest of a reporter. As far as I understand, the last time I checked, those charges against Evan Lambert, this reporter, for disorderly conduct still haven’t been dropped, even though —
AMY GOODMAN: I think they have been dismissed.
MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM-COOK: OK. OK. Thank you. All right.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matthew Cunningham-Cook, I want to thank you so much for being with us, researcher and writer for The Lever. We’re going to link to the pieces of The Lever that’s done an extraordinary job exposing what’s going on in East Palestine, Ohio.
Well, from East Palestine to Palestine, next up, we speak with Jim Cavallaro, the prominent human rights attorney. Last week, the Biden administration nominated him for a top human rights post, and withdrew the nomination due in part to his criticism of Israel’s human rights record. Back in less than 30 seconds.