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“There Will Be More Derailments”

By Julia Rock and Rebecca Burns - The Lever, February 10, 2023

Pete Buttigieg’s Transportation Department has not moved to revive an Obama-era safety rule that could help prevent future train accidents and derailments.

In the aftermath of a fiery Ohio train derailment, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s department has not moved to reinstate an Obama-era rail safety rule aimed at expanding the use of better braking technology, even though a former federal safety official recently warned Congress that without the better brakes, “there will be more derailments [and] more releases of hazardous materials.”

Instead, transportation regulators have been considering a rail-industry-backed proposal that could weaken existing brake safety rules.

Most of the nation’s freight trains — including the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio — continue to rely on a Civil War-era braking system. Norfolk Southern belongs to a lobby group that successfully pressed President Donald Trump to repeal a 2015 rule requiring newer, safer electronic braking systems in some trains transporting hazardous materials, The Lever reported Wednesday.

The Department of Transportation's most recent regulatory agenda — which lists all planned, proposed, and final rules — does not include an ECP brake rule.

When asked if the better braking technology would have reduced the severity of the Ohio accident, Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), said, “Yes.”

Rail Companies Blocked Safety Rules Before Ohio Derailment

By David Sirota, Julia Rock, Rebecca Burns, and Matthew Cunningham-Cook - The Lever, February 8, 2023

Norfolk Southern helped convince government officials to repeal brake rules — and corporate lobbyists watered down hazmat safety regs.

Before this weekend’s fiery Norfolk Southern train derailment prompted emergency evacuations in Ohio, the company helped kill a federal safety rule aimed at upgrading the rail industry’s Civil War-era braking systems, according to documents reviewed by The Lever.

Though the company’s 150-car train in Ohio reportedly burst into 100-foot flames upon derailing — and was transporting materials that triggered a fireball when they were released and incinerated — it was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train,” federal officials told The Lever.

Documents show that when current transportation safety rules were first created, a federal agency sided with industry lobbyists and limited regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds. The decision effectively exempted many trains hauling dangerous materials — including the one in Ohio — from the “high-hazard” classification and its more stringent safety requirements.

Amid the lobbying blitz against stronger transportation safety regulations, Norfolk Southern paid executives millions and spent billions on stock buybacks — all while the company shed thousands of employees despite warnings that understaffing is intensifying safety risks. Norfolk Southern officials also fought off a shareholder initiative that could have required company executives to “assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation.”

Special Report: Norfolk-Southern Train Derails 50 of 151 Cars in Fiery Crash

By staff - Railroad Workers United, February 7, 2023

As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the deadly train wreck in Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 5th, 2013, a major fiery train wreck in Ohio this past weekend serves as a reminder of just how potentially dangerous long and heavy trains can be. Add to this the fact that in the last 10 years, the Class One carriers have dramatically increased both the length and tonnage of the average train, while cutting back on maintenance and inspection, and we have a time bomb ticking, just like a decade ago, leading up to the Canadian disaster that destroyed a whole town and took the lives of 47 people. While thousands were and remain evacuated, and property damage to both rail and non-railroad property will no doubt soar into the millions, we dodged a bullet as no rail workers and no trackside residents were killed. This time.

The train, NS 32N, which was built in Madison, IL and headed east to Conway, PA swapped out crews in Decatur, IL. This crew would experience trouble while running their route between Decatur, IL and Peru, IN. In fact, they did not complete their trip to Peru since they outlawed on the federal hours-of-service statute. The train severed a knuckle between two cars at Attica, IN. This occurred while the train was going downhill and while in dynamic braking. Pretty much the only time a train breaks in this scenario is when the train isn’t blocked properly. In order to mitigate in-train forces, railroads prior to PSR would build trains with the heavier cars on the head end and the lighter cars on the rear end. This prevents severe slack run-ins and run-outs throughout the trip and if the train’s emergency brakes are applied, you don’t have heavier cars running into lighter cars which causes jackknifing. This particular train had 40% of it’s weight on the rear 1/3 of the train. Most of this tonnage was made up of loaded tank cars which are very heavy and slosh back and forth when coming to a sudden stop. This sloshing after a stop can continue the pushing of more cars off a track in a jackknifing situation which is what occurred in this Ohio wreck. This block of tank cars was placed directly behind a block of cars that were in the middle of train which were equipped with cushioned draw bars. The draw bars on these cars slide in and out independent of the car body which helps protect the merchandise carried within from damage. These type of draw bars are usually on automobile carriers to prevent the cars/trucks inside from being damaged. Placing cars with these draw bars in the middle of a train creates elasticity. Building a train like this (Head end = locomotives, which are the heaviest part of any train, followed by heavy mixed freight loads, followed by a block of cushioned draw bar cars, followed by a block of heavy tank cars (such as the case with this 32N) is akin to placing two bowling balls on the ends of a rubber band and praying the rubber band doesn’t break. 

Video footage has emerged online showing one of the wheels on this train on fire as it passed by the camera. If this footage is authentic, it’s very likely that car caused the derailment. This damaged car apparently was allowed to leave its initial terminal because it wasn’t inspected properly due to car inspectors being laid-off and time allowed per car inspection being dramatically reduced by the industry. If this did indeed occur this way, the train would’ve gone into emergency and the heavy tank cars on the rear end would’ve slammed into the derailed cars causing the 50 cars to pile up off the track and catch fire. 

"Precision Scheduled Railroading" is more than likely a major culprit in this incident for the following reasons:

  • Inspection times have been cut resulting in the defective car remaining in the consist.
  • Train was excessively long and heavy… 151 cars, 9300 feet, 18,000 tons.
  • Train was not blocked properly because PSR calls for limited car dwell times in terminals. Blocking a train for proper train handling (placing the majority of weight on the head end and ahead of cushioned draw bars) takes longer so this practice has been mostly eliminated by the rail carriers. 

Fiery Ohio Train Wreck the Result of "PSR"

By Fritz Edler, et. al - Railroad Workers United, February 7, 2023

Railroad Workers United (RWU) condemns the dangerous and historically unsafe practices by Class 1 rail carriers that resulted in this catastrophe that will impact the community of East Palestine Ohio for many years, if not forever. The root causes of this wreck are the same ones that have been singled out repeatedly, associated with the hedge fund initiated operating model known as “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR). But risky practices, such as ever longer and heavier trains even precede PSR. The train that wrecked is a case in point, 9300 feet long, 18,000 tons. Other hallmarks of modern day railroading include deep cuts both maintenance and operating employees, poor customer service, deferred maintenance to rolling stock and infrastructure, long working hours and chronic fatigue, limited on-the-job training and high employee turnover. 

Norfolk Southern train NS 32N with 150 cars on the manifest, derailed on Feb. 3 at 8:55pm. It consisted of 3 locomotives 141 loads and 9 empties. The train had a crew of 3 at the time of the wreck, consisting of an Engineer, a Conductor and a Conductor Trainee. 20 of its loaded cars were considered Hazmat by the railroad. 10 of those hazmat cars were involved in the 50-car pileup. Of those 10, 5 cars contained Vinyl Chloride, all of which were damaged and/or burned, with one of those leaking by design to relieve explosive pressure. 

At this time, the immediate cause of the wreck appears to have been a 19th century style mechanical failure of the axle on one of the cars – an overheated bearing - leading to derailment and then jackknifing tumbling cars. There is no way in the 21st century, save from a combination of incompetence and disregard to public safety, that such a defect should still be threatening our communities. 

40% of the weight of NS 32N was grouped at the rear third of the train, which has always been bad practice and made more dangerous with longer heavier trains. This fact almost certainly made the wreck dynamically worse. But increasingly the PSR driven Carriers, driven to cut costs and crew time by any means necessary, cut corners and leave crews and the public at risk.

The crew was able to uncouple the locomotives and move them to safety, preventing an even bigger tragedy. This would not have been possible under the various management schemes now being proposed to operate such trains with single person crews. Further, because Train 32N carried the standard crew of two or more workers, they were able to immediately take the necessary emergency measures to ensure a safe and effective response.

The short-term profit imperative, the so-called “cult of the Operating Ratio” - of NS and the other Class 1 railroads - has made cutting costs, employees, procedures, and resources the top priority. In this case, NS and the other carriers have eliminated many of the critical mechanical positions and locations necessary to guarantee protection against these kinds of failures. Simultaneously, they regularly petition the regulators at the Federal Railway Administration for relief from historically required maintenance and inspections.

The wreck of Train 32N has been years in the making. What other such train wrecks await us remains to be seen. But given the modus operandi of the Class One rail carriers, we can no doubt expect future disasters of this nature.

Victory Against Polluter Points Way to Clean, Green, and Fully Funded Schools

By Lauren Bianchi - Labor Notes, January 31, 2023

For two years, teachers and staff in my workplace, George Washington High School, helped lead a community campaign to stop a hazardous industrial metal shredder, General Iron, from moving a few blocks from our school.

Repeating a historic pattern, city officials facilitated General Iron’s planned move from the wealthy and white Lincoln Park neighborhood where it had operated for decades to the working-class, majority Latino Southeast Side.

Our campaign won a major victory when we pressured Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Department of Public Health into denying the final operating permit for General Iron. It took years of mobilizing, street protest, and a month-long hunger strike to force the mayor to do the right thing.

The experience of Chicago Teachers Union members in the #StopGeneralIron campaign highlights the power of union members when we stand shoulder to shoulder with environmental justice activists to demand safe living and working conditions.

Wake Up Call: Refinery Disaster in Philadelphia

A Pick Axe and a Heart Attack: Workers Suffer As They Clean Up Toxic Mess That Vernon’s Old Battery Recycling Plant Left Behind

By Mariah Castañeda - L.A. Taco, October 26, 2022

When workers tasked with cleaning up toxic lead dust spilled by the Exide battery recycling plant from Guadalupe Valdovinos’ yard started packing up, she noticed they hadn’t finished. She saw a large patch of soil on her property that they hadn’t touched. 

When she insisted they missed a spot, she remembers the clean-up workers rudely said that cleaning up the untouched corner of her property “wasn’t part of the plan.” 

Valdovinos says that the apparent disregard for her home started early in the clean-up process “They would hit and break things. We expected them to repair it. They were hostile. They were they would grunt or be very like, well, we didn’t do that,” said Valdovinos, “Like, we didn’t come at them attacking them. We were just pointing out, hey. You broke something. And they took it very offensive, like, No, we didn’t do that. No, that’s not our problem. So that was another issue. Yeah, it wasn’t a friendly environment.”

She complained about the clean-up at an Environmental Board Meeting in July and addressed California’s Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), the state agency responsible for cleaning up the mess made by Exide Technologies’ battery recycling plant. For decades, Exide belched out thousands of tons of poisonous lead dust across the predominantly Latino communities surrounding the industrial city of Vernon. 

“I’m here to urge the Council and DTSC not to contract the cleaning crew National Engineering Consulting Company Group, also known as NEC because they are not professional,” said Valdovinos at the Environmental Board Meeting.

She was hardly the first to complain of sloppy standards affecting the cleanup of more than 7 million pounds of lead dust spewed out by Exide. Residents have long complained about issues with the cleanup, and now employees of the contractors responsible for the cleanup are speaking out too. Reporting by L.A. TACO found two incidents of severe injuries to subcontractor workers due to possibly unsafe working conditions and questionable treatment of poisonous lead dust. 

One cleanup worker died after suffering injuries inflicted by a Bobcat digger at one site in 2020. At another, in the spring of 2022, an employee of a state contractor was severely injured by a pickax blow to their chest and shoulder area after a site was not appropriately cleared for overhead hazards. 

A Low-Carbon Chemical Industry Could Create 29 Million Jobs, Study Finds

By Cristen Hemingway Jaynes - EcoWatch, September 13, 2022

While the chemical industry provides society with useful materials, it is also a heavy contributor to plastic waste being released into the planet’s oceans, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, biodiversity loss and divergence from natural biogeochemical cycles, a press release from The University of Tokyo’s Center for Global Commons (CGC) said.

According to a new report from CGC and system change company Systemiq, 29 million new jobs could be created by the chemical industry embracing technology that is low-carbon and more efficient, The Guardian reported.

Around four percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the global chemical industry, reported The University of Tokyo.

The Planet Positive Chemicals report from Systemiq emphasized that the chemical industry must switch to a low emissions model that is more circular and end its reliance on fossil fuels in order to become a beneficial force for the planet.

The Case Against Nuclear Power: A Primer

By Joshua Frank - CounterPunch, September 9, 2022

A version of the following was presented at Socialism 2022, sponsored by Haymarket Books, which just published Joshua Frank’s Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America.

Thanks everyone for showing up for this talk. I think it’s a vitally important topic, but I’ll admit, it’s a bit disheartening that it’s now a subject of debate on the Left.

I’ve long believed that we ought to build on the successes that came before us, not tear them down. Sadly, with the wrath of climate change impacting every corner of the earth, that is exactly what some are attempting to do. Last week a friend sent me an NPR story, “When Even Environmentalists Support Nuclear Power.” I read it, it’s awful propaganda that distorts the reality of how many of us view nuclear power and will continue to fight against it.

The ETUI's list of hazardous medicinal products (HMPs)

By Ian Lindsley and Tony Musu - European Trade Union Institute, May 2022

(Including cytotoxics and based on the EU CLP classification system of Carcinogenic, Mutagenic and Reprotoxic (CMR) substances)

Workers exposed to hazardous medicinal products (HMPs), or hazardous drugs, which are carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic substances (CMRs), within the meaning of the recently adopted Carcinogens, Mutagens and Reprotoxic Substances Directive (CMRD – Directive (EU) 2022/431), must be given specific training by their employers to prevent risks of adverse effects on their health.

In order to help employers meet their obligations, the European Commission has to publish European guidelines for the safe management of HMPs at work, including cytotoxics, by the end of 2022, and must draw up a definition and establish an indicative list of HMPs that are CMRs, no later than 5 April 2025.

The objective of this ETUI report and the list included is to identify which HMPs fall under the legislative scope of the CMRD in Europe, so that users of the European 2022 guidelines know which specific HMPs the guidelines now apply to, well ahead of the Commission’s indicative list, to be published by 2025.

Read the report (Link).

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