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Bomb Train: Calls Grow for New Laws on Rail Safety After Toxic Disaster in East Palestine, Ohio

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Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, continue to demand answers about how a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed February 3, releasing hazardous materials into the air, water and soil. The National Transportation Safety Board has released a preliminary report on the accident, blaming a wheel bearing failure for the crash and saying the derailment was “100% preventable.” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has faced widespread criticism over his response to the disaster, visited the village on Thursday for the first time since the derailment, a day after former President Trump also visited East Palestine. For more, we speak with Emily Wright, development director of River Valley Organizing, who lives a few miles from the derailment site; Gregory Hynes, the national legislative director at SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers; and reporter Topher Sanders, whose latest ProPublica story details how Norfolk Southern officials are allowed to order train crews to ignore safety alerts.

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StoryFeb 17, 2023Corporate Greed and Deregulation Fuel Threat of More Bomb Trains as East Palestine Demands Answers
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg finally visited East Palestine, Ohio, Thursday for the first time since a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed earlier this month, blanketing the town with a toxic brew of spilled chemicals and gases. Buttigieg has faced widespread criticism for his response to the bomb train disaster in East Palestine, where residents fear their health has been put at risk from the spill and a controlled burn of the chemicals.

Buttigieg’s trip came a day after former President Trump visited East Palestine. Trump criticized President Biden for going to Ukraine this week instead of the site of the train derailment in Ohio. Trump made no mention of why he rescinded an Obama-era rule that would have required more sophisticated brakes on trains carrying hazardous materials. On Thursday, Buttigieg accused Trump of siding with the railroad companies while he was president.

TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY PETE BUTTIGIEG: They got their way on a Christmas tree of regulatory changes that the last administration made on its way out the door in December of 2020. I think they’re getting their way on the fines being too low. I’m sorry, but if the biggest fine we can charge on a violation is $250,000 or less, and that’s an egregious hazmat violation that gets somebody killed, that is not enough for a multibillion-dollar company.

AMY GOODMAN: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s visit to East Palestine, Ohio, came as the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the train derailment, blaming a wheel bearing failure for the crash. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy described the derailment as “100% preventable.”

JENNIFER HOMENDY: But I can tell you this much: This was 100% preventable. We call things accidents. There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable. So, our hearts are with you.

AMY GOODMAN: The Norfolk Southern train that derailed had 141 cars and stretched for two miles. There were just three crew members on board.

We’re joined now by three guests. Topher Sanders is a reporter at ProPublica covering railroad safety. His new article is headlined “A Norfolk Southern Policy Lets Officials Order Crews to Ignore Safety Alerts.” Gregory Hynes joins us from Washington, D.C. He’s national legislative director at SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. And Emily Wright is on the ground in the East Palestine area in Ohio. She’s development director for River Valley Organizing in Columbiana County.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s start right there on the ground, Emily. A lot of visitors this week, right? You had former President Trump. You had Pete Buttigieg. But the question is: What’s actually happening on the ground right now? Can you talk about how people are feeling, what their questions and demands are?

EMILY WRIGHT: Yes. Last night we had a town hall with independent scientists and environmental legal experts, lawyers, and a retired fire chief, Sil, who was a hazmat trainer for decades. And people were very, very happy that someone was just listening to them and answering their questions. People’s questions are, you know: What is Norfolk Southern going to do right now to help us? Because a lot of them are involved — we’re not doing any type of class-action lawsuit or anything like that. We’re just offering free legal clinics, that are going to be coming up, for people to get unbiased advice that is not soliciting. But people are concerned about: Do they make decisions now, because they don’t have the money and they need the money? Do they wait to make decisions? Are their families safe? You know, they have — 50% of the people that were at the meeting last night raised their hand that they have well water. And at this point, the only — they’re still getting the instruction to drink bottled water, because they’re not completely sure it’s safe. So, everybody just really wants questions answered. And I think everybody is not really looking at even the high-profile visits. They more just want action.

You know, we give — a lot of people are pointing fingers right now, but everybody is pretty disgusted with everybody. I mean, you talked about how Trump rolled back those safety regulations. Then we have two years of the Biden administration where they had a chance to reinstate those, and they didn’t. And so people are upset with all political officials right now. They’re upset that our governor and our House representative came and took a sip of water in East Palestine as a political stunt and, you know, said the water is safe. But people are waking up in the same area, in the same homes with rashes and nausea and asthma symptoms in the morning from just being exposed to all of the surface and soil contaminants right now. So, you know, there were a lot of people that are visibly upset and really feel like — really feel like they’re not being represented on all levels — local, state and federal government.

So, people are going to be taking action. They’re going to be writing letters, making calls. We’re going to be doing more petitions, because this is — unfortunately, our safety in Appalachia is something that can change from administration to administration. So what we’re going to push for at River Valley also is change at a congressional level. We need laws made. We need things that can’t be taken away by executive order or, you know, placed by that. So, that’s what we’re really pushing for, is lasting change from this. And it needs to be bipartisan. Everybody needs to get at the table with this.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you held a town hall last night. Tonight, I know Erin Brockovich is holding a meeting, who took on PG&E, Pacific Gas and Electric, what, 30 years ago for contamination in California. On Wednesday night, CNN hosted its own town hall meeting in East Palestine. This is one local resident, Jim Stewart, addressing the Norfolk Southern CEO, Alan Shaw.

JIM STEWART: I came home the other day. I put the garage door up. I got — we pulled in the garage, got out of the car, put the garage door down. As soon as we got out of that car, the smell came back to us. Right away, instant headache. You know, I’m 65 years old, a diabetic, AFib heart, heart disease, everything. Now, did you shorten my life now? I want to retire and enjoy it. How are we going to enjoy it? You burned me. We were going to sell our house. Our value went poof. Do I mow the grass? Do I — can I plant tomatoes next summer? What can I do? I’m afraid to. You know, and it’s in the air. Every day I cough, three — a little cough here, a little cough there. I’ve never had that, you know? I got rashes on my cheeks and all of my arms from the derail — I don’t call it a derailment; I call it a disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Wright, talk about what people are feeling. I mean, he’s diabetic. He’s 65 years old. This was the participant in the CNN town hall, challenging the Norfolk Southern CEO. And what about his presence on the ground, the head of Norfolk Southern, Alan Shaw, who says Norfolk Southern won’t be leaving anytime soon?

EMILY WRIGHT: Yeah, that statement was almost verbatim most things we heard last night. This is actually a really good time to highlight something new that’s come up. So, we’re all aware that a health clinic was established for these people to go to. So, they were told, if they have these symptoms after the burn and the spill, to go to the free health clinic. And it was, I believe, through the Health Department, Ohio, and health department in our own. And this is not a clinic. People are not being treated. This is 100% — I have everything to back this up, but it is a — just for background, I’m a registered nurse, and I’ve worked in the medical field for 20 years before this. So I can tell you that this is not an actual treatment clinic. This is a documentation and referral station. So, there’s no doctors. There’s no lab tests, so no blood and urine tests. There’s no diagnoses, and there’s no real assessment. It’s just usually a nurse. They have some type of toxicologist that may be there. And they refer you to somewhere. So there’s no actual treatment.

So these people are not only not receiving that, but we have several people that have come out this week to tell us that home health agencies aren’t coming to these homes because they’re worried about being exposed. And we have people that are, you know, bedridden, sick. One person, you know, they asked to remain anonymous, but they have a child that has total care needs. And they can’t get home health to come out and take care of their child. And it’s really been a struggle. So, these are real things happening on the ground.

And as far as, you know, for Alan Shaw, there is nothing that he can say that’s going to make this better, that he’s willing to say, because this is what Norfolk Southern does. They come in. They have these things. They poison us. They keep it — they try to sweep it under the rug. And they think that we’re all just stupid enough here — you know, we’re all just hilljack enough — to sit back. But I can tell you, from the meeting last night, that people are very angry, and they are ready to take action with not only policy changes, but they’re ready to take action and make sure Norfolk Southern really does pay, not just cleans up, not just gives us some money, but they actually pay, because these people have lost everything, their property value. They don’t understand if their homes are safe or not, like he said about mowing his grass, you know, with dioxin that falls on the ground after these things. We had Stephen Lester talking last night at our town hall about this. And, you know, people are scared — they mow their grass — because they’re walking outside or in their homes or sitting on their couches, and they’re noticing that they’re feeling shortness of breath or sick because the particulates are coming up.

So, people are not being properly taken care of, and it’s not enough. It’s a good first step that the EPA forced Norfolk Southern to clean this up right. It’s a good step that they’re going to monitor that. But it’s not enough. It’s the first step. And instead of finger-pointing right now, what I would really like everyone to do is get on the ball of doing immediate change through, you know, this administration and through the Transportation Department, and then working on congressional change, because we’re tired of the finger-pointing. You know.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily, I want to bring in Gregory Hynes, who’s national legislative director at SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. So, Greg, this description of this train, we’re talking about February 3rd, passed through three temperature sensors as it was going along, two-mile-long train. The sensors are designed to alert problems like the hot bearing that eventually failed that day. But the only sensor, called a hot box detector, that registered a sufficiently high temperature to sound the alarm was the one less than a mile from the accident site, according to the NTSB initial report. Two-mile-long train, at least 20 of the cars are filled with toxic chemicals. And there are only three workers, engineers, conductors on board? The guy driving the train, a conductor — I’m not sure; you’ll have to correct me on the titles — and a trainee? How is this possible? As people saw, miles before, the wheels were on fire.

GREGORY HYNES: Well, first let me say that my heart goes out to the people of East Palestine with this terrible accident.

And the detectors that you speak of, there are no regulations requiring the railroads to have detectors at all, and there are no regulations requiring the railroads to calibrate and maintain those detectors. So, it’s — we’re part of the NTSB investigation, so there’s only certain things I can say. But the crew was not alerted with any problem from the previous detectors. The detector that did find a problem, it happened pretty close to the same time that the derailment happened.

And as far as the crew members, there was a conductor, an engineer and a trainee. But most — all the Class I railroads in America currently have a minimum of two people on the crew. And they just happened to have an extra one because they had a trainee. Now, the railroads want to go to single-person crews and then no-people crews. That’s their goal. And they fight tooth and nail in Washington, D.C., to not have any additional regulations and to roll back the regulations that they do have.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is astounding. These trains go on for miles. And aren’t they supposed to spend a certain amount of time inspecting each car that has toxic chemicals?

GREGORY HYNES: Well, yes, absolutely. There’s supposed to be Class I brake air tests on all the cars. And the railroads have rolled back regulations on doing inspections and air brake tests, as well. They’ve laid off 30% of their workforce in the last five years. It’s all about adhering to the wishes and whims of Wall Street and lowering their operation ratio. The other thing that people aren’t talking about, as well, are, the employees that they do have, NS recently cut their training program in half, so they only get half the training that they used to get. I mean, they’re rolling the dice, all the Class I railroads. And the thing that I would like to highlight is that nothing has changed with the freight railroads in America since this accident happened. They’re not taking any action to change anything. The only way they’re going to change anything is if they’re forced to.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, a derailment took place outside of Detroit with the same company. Let me bring in Topher Sanders to this conversation. Topher is a reporter at ProPublica covering railroad safety. You just wrote this piece, “A Norfolk Southern Policy Lets Officials Order Crews to Ignore Safety Alerts.” Explain what you found. Give us background on all of this, and also the overall picture of the major railroad conglomerates in the United States. There are like seven of them, right?

TOPHER SANDERS: Yes, Amy. Yes. So, a team of us reporters at ProPublica started looking into various aspects of the derailment, and the policies and the kind of internal operation rules of Norfolk Southern became very interesting to us. And we were able to learn about this one particular policy where, some years ago, they created something called the Wayside Detector Help Desk. And it’s basically a team of personnel that review data coming from these hot boxes that you mentioned earlier. And that team, they’re not dispatchers. They kind of understand data, and they understand some of the workings in the workings of the train. They can make determinations that when crews receive certain alerts from these hot boxes, that that crew, if they deem it necessary based on information that they have, that’s really opaque and unclear based on the policy, they can tell that crew to mush on. They can tell that crew to ignore that alarm that’s coming from the hot box or coming from the dragging equipment detector, or whatever kind of detector it is, and say, “Continue on, because we have information that otherwise tells us it’s safe for you to do so.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask about what has been found and the number of derailments that there are. Over the past 20 years, overheated bearings have led to 416 derailments, according to the Federal Railroad Administration data on train accidents. Most have not been nearly as catastrophic as what happened in East Palestine. Is the federal railroad administration able to regulate hot box detectors? Does it require railroads to report data on how they perform? And how has the regulation of trains — its direct relation to lobbying in Washington?

TOPHER SANDERS: There is no requirement for the Class Ones reporting data related to hot boxes. All that information, as mentioned earlier by one of your other guests, is kind of held tightly within each organization. There’s no rules or regulations about having the hot boxes or what those thresholds should be.

One of the key things that came out of the preliminary report, that I think everyone should pay attention to and be very keenly attuned to, is the idea that the thresholds that should trigger alarm and concern for a crew on any given class of railroad are wildly different. So, on one railroad, that temperature threshold could be x, and another railroad, that temperature threshold could be 20, 30, 40 degrees different. And in this case, they were obviously trending hot. They went from about 60-or-so degrees above ambient temperature on that wheel bearing to 100 degrees above ambient on that particular bearing, between two detectors before they got to East Palestine. But that 60-degree change — that 40-degree change, that wasn’t enough for Norfolk Southern to determine that that needed to be dealt with at that moment, despite what we all saw on that security camera, that there was a fiery glow under the train 20 miles before the derailment. And so, the chair of the NTSB forthrightly said that, yes, considering what these thresholds should be and whether or not there needs to be some uniformity around these thresholds on these temperature gauges is definitely something they’ll be looking into.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Topher, ProPublica has also learned that Norfolk Southern disregarded a similar mechanical problem on another train months earlier that jumped the tracks in Ohio, a train that was headed to Cleveland. What happened? What happened in the city of Sandusky, where thousands of gallons of some kind of molten paraffin wax was dumped?

TOPHER SANDERS: Yes, that’s candle wax, by the way. And it was molten at the time, so it would have been quite, quite dangerous, catastrophic, had that actually made contact with anyone when it derailed.

So, what happened there was the Wayside Desk, as it was explained to us, actually receiving data about the same kind of issue, saw something trending hot on the train, a wheel trending hot, a bearing trending hot. They did instruct that train to stop, but — and they brought out a mechanic to review the issue and see what was going on. And surprisingly, they were able to look at this train, something that had a trending hot mechanism, and they told this crew to mush on. After they did stop the train, looked at it, they said, “OK, mush on.” We’re having some indication that maybe that’s not what the crew wanted to do. And they went four miles down the track and derailed and spilled thousands of gallons of hot molten paraffin wax onto the city of Sandusky, after data was given to them that maybe should have indicated that they needed to take that engine out of commission. And out of an abundance of caution and safety, that’s the move that should have taken place, based on the experts and the union officials that we’ve spoken to.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Greg Hynes, you’re with the union. I want to talk more about the workers, the rail strike that just was threatened, and the Biden administration or President Biden signing off on a law that says that they couldn’t strike, what their issues were then, and if you see any relation to what’s happening right now, and specifically when it comes to East Palestine, where you have these three workers who are on the train, what you think needs to happen. The Republicans are having a heyday right now. They’re saying, of course, this happened under Biden. Buttigieg, Biden didn’t go there. But Trump went. It was Trump who signed off on a deregulation of the trains, caving to the lobbyists. Could Biden, in one fell swoop, just reverse what Trump did and go back to the Obama-Biden administration rules, that were supposed to go into effect, sadly, from 2014, this year, in 2023?

GREGORY HYNES: Well, all of the waivers that were put forward during the Trump administration should be looked at, the ones that were granted, many of them within minutes of being asked for. And the two-person crew rule, which was the minimum staffing rule, was done during the Obama administration, and it was ready to be released at the end of his term. The Trump administration came in. He appointed a retired railroad CEO to head up the FRA, who decided that we don’t need any regulations on crew staffing and just basically got rid of the entire rulemaking. And not only that, but he said, by FRA taking no action on crew staffing, we’re going to preempt all the states who have passed two-person crew laws, meaning that we’re not going to do anything about it, and we’re not going to allow any of the states to do anything about it.

The current administration has revisited the crew staffing rule. It’s already had its public comment period. It’s already had a hearing. And there were over 13,000 comments submitted. They’ve taken all that information in, and they are going to be releasing a crew staffing rule. But I agree with you that all the regulations, waivers that have been granted through the Trump administration should all be reevaluated.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the threatened strike, especially around issues of, like, sick days, that railroad workers — and this is in the time of the pandemic — can’t take off sick days?

GREGORY HYNES: Well, it’s still that way. And as far as the strike goes, it was never about money. It was about quality of life and safety, because of this business model that the railroads are running and operating under, which they just want to cut precision scheduled railroading. They don’t want to allow people to take time off. They want to work you to the end, over and over again. They find loopholes in the hours of service so that people never get time off. And our members were just, “We can’t live like this. We can’t live like this. We’re gone from our families all the time. If we have a problem in our home, we can’t take off without the threat of being fired.” I mean, it’s really a strong-arm system. And the strike was never about money; it was about safety and quality of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, 30 seconds, back to Emily Wright, on the ground in Columbiana County, where East Palestine is. What you’re demanding right now?

EMILY WRIGHT: We’re demanding first that the Norfolk Southern Corporation, you know, basically pay — and not just pay for this, but change their practices in every way, like Greg was just discussing. It’s absolutely ridiculous, the staffing. There’s no need. It’s a multibillion-dollar corporation. There’s no need for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Have posted record profits this year.

EMILY WRIGHT: Record profits. And, two, we’re demanding policy change. We don’t care the letter behind your name. We’re demanding policy change now. And we’re also demanding congressional move on this so we have lasting changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Wright, we want to thank you for being with us, development director for River Valley Organizing in Columbiana County, Ohio; Greg Hynes, national legislative director at SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers; and Topher Sanders. We’ll link to your pieces at ProPublica, as you continue to cover railroad safety.

Coming up, we go from East Palestine to Palestine, to the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians held a general strike Thursday after Israeli forces killed 11 Palestinians and injured 500. Stay with us.

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