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A Train Derailed in East Palestine, Ohio; Why did that Happen?

The NTSB, East Palestine Railroad Catastrophe, Rail Safety & Nationalization With RWU's Hugh Sawyer

You Can’t Trust What Reactionaries Are Saying About Train Derailments

Nationalize the Railroads Now!

'Too Many Holes': Rail Workers Say Buttigieg Plan of Action Is Not Enough

By Kenny Stancil - Common Dreams, February 21, 2023

"Rank-and-file railroad workers can diagnose and fix the problems. We will believe Pete Buttigieg is serious when he starts talking about public ownership of critical railroad infrastructure and enacting some of our solutions."

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's newly unveiled plan to improve railroad safety is inadequate, an inter-union alliance of rail workers declared Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) blueprint for holding rail corporations accountable and protecting the well-being of workers and affected communities comes after a Norfolk Southern-owned train overloaded with vinyl chloride and other carcinogenic chemicals crashed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, precipitating a toxic spill and fire that has sparked fears of air pollution and groundwater contamination.

In contrast to the hundreds of U.S. derailments that go largely unnoticed each year, the unfolding environmental and public health disaster on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border has helped expose the dangerous consequences of the Wall Street-driven transformation and deregulation of the freight rail industry—a long-standing process intensified by the Trump administration and so far unchallenged by the Biden administration.

"Profit and expediency must never outweigh the safety of the American people," Buttigieg—who has yet to exercise his authority to restore previously gutted rules and was mulling an industry-backed proposal to further weaken federal oversight of train braking systems as recently as February 10, according toThe Lever—said Tuesday in a statement.

"We at USDOT are doing everything in our power to improve rail safety," said Buttigieg, "and we insist that the rail industry do the same—while inviting Congress to work with us to raise the bar."

USDOT called on Norfolk Southern and other rail carriers to "provide proactive advance notification to state emergency response teams when they are transporting hazardous gas tank cars through their states instead of expecting first responders to look up this information after an incident occurs" and to "provide paid sick leave," among other things.

The department also urged Congress to increase how much it can penalize companies for safety violations, noting that "the current maximum fine, even for an egregious violation involving hazardous materials and resulting in fatalities, is $225,455." As Buttigieg tweeted, "This is not enough to drive changes at a multibillion-dollar company like Norfolk Southern."

Finally, USDOT committed to strengthening its regulation of the rail industry by "advancing the train crew staffing rule, which will require a minimum of two crew members for most railroad operations," and by "initiating a focused safety inspection program on routes over which high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) and other trains carrying large volumes of hazardous material travel," among other proposals.

"Each of these steps," the agency said, "will enhance rail safety in the United States."

But according to Railroad Workers United (RWU), which focused in particular on the issue of train crew staffing, "there are too many holes" in Buttigieg's plan to ensure the safety of the nation's rail system.

"As currently written, the proposed rule could allow for numerous instances of single-crew operations in the coming years," RWU tweeted. The alliance also shared a letter it sent to USDOT last September accusing the Federal Railroad Administration of "attempting to placate unions, community groups, and the general public on the one hand with a 'two-person train crew rule' while, on the other hand, signaling a green light to the industry to run trains with a single crew member."

Relentless Profit Drive Behind Ohio Rail Disaster

By Geoff Mirelowitz and Marilee Taylor - World Outlook, February 20, 2023

The February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern (NS) train carrying hazardous chemicals caused an inferno and the release of enormous plumes of toxic black smoke over East Palestine, Ohio. It has brought into sharp focus the danger the railroads’ relentless drive for profit poses to public safety.

This is the same motive that led the rail barons to refuse paid days off to railroad workers who are sick or too exhausted from long and unpredictable hours of work to operate trains safely. In December, President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress backed the railroad owners, imposing the new national rail contract they insisted on. (See “Rail Contract Shows Unions Need New Leadership; Workers Need Our Own Party.”)

News coverage of the derailment shined a spotlight on the enormous profits the railroad owners are raking in. A front-page article in the February 18 New York Times reported, “Norfolk Southern, which earned more than $3 billion last year… over the past five years… paid shareholders nearly $18 billion through stock buybacks and dividends — twice as much as the amount it invested in its railways and operations. Other large railways have paid out billions to their shareholders, too, and their shares have done better than the wider stock market over the last decade.”

Health dangers threaten community

Residents of East Palestine were ordered to evacuate while photos and videos of the frightening flames from the derailment quickly made national news.

On February 6, a “controlled release” of toxic fumes from the derailed and hazardous cars was conducted, leading to more gruesome images. Two days later residents were assured it was safe to return to their homes. Norfolk Southern rushed to run trains through the town again. But the danger was far from over.

The Rail Unions Warned Us: Greed Is Dangerous

By Rebekah Entralgo - Inequality.org, February 17, 2023

Following multiple, dangerous derailments across the country, those working the railroad have a solution to the nation's rail crisis: public ownership.

The toxic clouds that billowed up from a derailed freight train in Ohio earlier this month are a chilling metaphor for the toxic greed that has infected so many of our big corporations.

After having to evacuate, residents of the town near the derailment are cautiously going back home, but they still don’t know the full extent of the damage to the area’s environment and public health.

The Norfolk Southern train was carrying dangerous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a highly flammable carcinogen that is more harmful than even ammonia and natural gas, according to federal regulations.

Following the derailment, locals have reported evidence of the sudden death of fish and wildlife, in addition to people having difficulty breathing, numb limbs, and rashes, among other possible physical symptoms from the chemical exposure.

Unions representing rail workers had warned of the possibility of just such a catastrophe.

In contract negotiations last year, they denounced a business model known as “precision scheduled railroading,” which aims to boost profits by running bigger and faster trains with smaller crews. The practice has even earned a nickname among rail workers: “positive shareholder reaction.” Combined with a lack of guaranteed sick pay, this created dangerous conditions for overworked rail employees.

Where have all the profits gone?

Amid Ohio Nightmare, Rail Worker Alliance Urges All of Labor to Back Railroad Nationalization

By Jake Johnson - Common Dreams, February 17, 2023

"The railroads, their CEOs, and the hedge fund robber barons will not listen, but railroad workers have the solution to managing and operating critical railroad infrastructure."

An alliance representing rail workers across the United States published an open letter late Thursday urging all of organized labor to support the nationalization of the country's railroad system, arguing that the private and inadequately regulated industry has "shown itself incapable of doing the job."

"In face of the degeneration of the rail system in the last decade, and after more than a decade of discussion and debate on the question, Railroad Workers United (RWU) has taken a position in support of public ownership of the rail system in the United States," reads the letter, which was published as the small town of East Palestine, Ohio is attempting to recover from the toxic derailment of a Norfolk Southern train two weeks ago.

"We ask you to consider doing the same, and announce your organization's support for rail public ownership," continues the letter, which was addressed to unions as well as environmental, transportation justice, and workers' rights organizations. "While the rail industry has been incapable of expansion in the last generation and has become more and more fixated on the operating ratio to the detriment of all other metrics of success, precision scheduled railroading (PSR) has escalated this irresponsible trajectory to the detriment of shippers, passengers, commuters, trackside communities, and workers."

The Case for Nationalizing the Railroads: Workers say now is the time to do the impossible

By Kari Lydersen - In These Times, February 16, 2023

Railroad workers packed themselves into hotel conference rooms near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in June 2022 to talk fervently about a momentous event potentially on the horizon: the first industry-wide rail strike in three decades. 

“All 12 railroad unions have proclaimed themselves united,” said Ron Kaminkow, Railroad Workers United (RWU) general secretary, during a conference session about chokepoints in the supply chain. ​“There could actually be a national railroad strike for the first time in almost 30 years.” 

Contract negotiations between those 12 unions and the country’s major freight railroad companies had ground to a halt by the conference, which was organized by RWU and the pro-union group Labor Notes. 

In July, 99.5% of the membership of the union representing railroad engineers — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen — voted to authorize a strike if legal hurdles were cleared.

The possibility presented a challenge for the Biden administration. President Joe Biden had become known as the most labor-friendly president in recent history, while a walkout threatened to paralyze the economy with a potential cost of $2 billion per day. The administration eventually negotiated a deal with union leaders and company leaders, announced Sept. 15, 2022, requiring a significant pay raise for workers without meaningfully addressing their primary concerns: short-staffing and a lack of paid sick days.

Many elected officials and pundits lauded the deal, but it still needed to be ratified by each union’s rank and file.

Three unions representing railroad workers voted down the proposed contract, while others voted for it. Then, in November, the country’s largest rail union — the SMART Transportation Division, which represents conductors and brakemen — rejected the deal, and a national rail strike was firmly on the table. Even unions that approved of the deal pledged to honor any picket lines.

On December 1, 2022, at Biden’s urging, Congress intervened, passing a law to force the unions to agree to the deal. Many railroad workers were furious — and felt betrayed.

“It was very frustrating, from the ​‘most pro-labor president America’s ever had,’” says Matt Weaver, legislative director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the nation’s third-largest railroad union. ​“When [railroads] have record profits and profit margins, and yet this deal is imposed, we’ve seen that our labor is expendable.”

The ordeal has also led many railroad workers and industry watchers to consider a vastly increased role for government in freight railroads: nationalization.

The Ohio Derailment Catastrophe Is a Case Study in Disaster Capitalism

By Mel Bauer - The Nation, February 15, 2023

As public outrage has grown over the toxic fallout from last month’s fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, the urgent questions behind this disaster echo the past year’s confrontations over working conditions in the lightly regulated rail industry.

Indeed, the catastrophe in Ohio—together with another hazardous derailment in Houston, Tex., just a week later—drives home the steep costs in health and well-being that we all incur when we fail to heed rail workers’ calls for more regulation and adequate staffing mandates. 

As rail workers sought to win basic guarantees of staffing support and sick leave from rail carriers long accustomed to selling labor short and winning major regulatory concessions from federal agencies, they stressed how the unsustainable demands placed on their working lives would result in disasters just like the one in East Palestine. The northeast Ohio village of about 5,000 people is 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and 20 miles south of Youngstown; already those metropolitan areas are under alert for the air and water contamination originating from the Palestine derailment. And in Palestine proper, many residents are already reporting troubling health symptoms and dying area wildlife as they weigh the risks of remaining exposed to the toxic fumes and chemical leaks from the derailed tanker cars carrying hazardous materials.

In the immediate aftermath of the derailment, rail officials ordered that the vinyl chloride hauled by five of the Norfolk Southern cars in the 150-car train be burned off to prevent a still greater explosion—but that action sent hydrogen chloride and phosgene, two dangerous gasses, spuming into the air. EPA investigators have since identified other hazardous chemicals the train had been hauling, including ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and butyl acrylate. And the EPA has released a report saying that chemicals from the derailment have leached into the soil and water in the aftermath of the accident.

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