Working people in and around East Palestine, Ohio, refuse to be helpless victims. They’re organizing and protesting, demanding control over the ongoing cleanup and long-term health care following the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern railroad derailment and release of toxic chemicals. Twenty rail cars — including five tankers of vinyl chloride on an almost 2-mile-long, 150-car freight train, weighing 18,000 tons — went on the ground and many burst into flames.
The vinyl chloride was purposely drained onto the ground by Norfolk Southern and government representatives and set on fire, sending poisonous chemicals into the soil, creeks and air.
Rail workers and their unions are part of the fight, challenging moves by the rail bosses to slash crew size, cut the workforce, impose 24/7 on-call work schedules and 12-hour shifts, and other steps to boost profit at the expense of safety.
“There is a sickness within the freight rail industry pervasive enough that it has took hold of all seven Class I rail carriers and rotted them from the inside out,” Tony Cardwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the union that builds and maintains tracks, bridges and buildings on the railroads, said in the latest issue of the union’s journal. “Sadly, East Palestine, Ohio, has taken the brunt of this cancerous business model, the unfortunate victim of a tragedy that was bound to happen.
“The deliberate mismanagement of Norfolk Southern,” he said, “has now threatened the ruination of an American town.”
“The Class I freight railroads are doing whatever the hell they want to maximize their profits with little to no accountability,” Cardwell said.
He also put blame on Democrats and Republicans, who back the bosses. “Politicians can continue to go to places like East Palestine. They can stand on a dais in a shiny white hard hat with an ‘I DIG COAL’ bannered backdrop, holding a sledgehammer in lieu of their traditional seven-iron and pretend to care about you. But they don’t,” he said.
One aspect of the bosses’ assaults on rail workers is to send them out to work with as little as 13 days of training. On June 14, the Federal Railroad Administration told Norfolk Southern that their conductor new-hire training program is “unacceptable,” and mandated it be changed within 45 days.
Last October, Jeremy Ferguson, president of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division (SMART-TD) union, the largest rail union, sent out a letter warning the membership that “newly hired employees are receiving less than half of the standard training times that existed little more than a year ago.” He said this “is unacceptable and a danger to us all.”
The unions need to take a greater role in control over training, Ferguson insisted.
“One consequence of smaller crews is that new hires do not get to work as a brakeman or switchman for their first few years on the job before being required to work as conductors, with full responsibility for commanding train movement,” Lance Anton, a conductor and SMART-TD member in Lincoln, Nebraska, told the Militant. “Though the union has some influence in the training, it is far from enough.
“The union should fight such work conditions in the interest of all rail workers and the people who live near the tracks,” he said.
Fight for control over health care
Workers and farmers in East Palestine continue to report medical difficulties, effects from the Feb. 3 derailment and residual toxic exposure. Dozens turned out for a so-called informational session June 6 at the First United Presbyterian Church. They tore into representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and other government agencies that treated their concerns with disdain.
Many in the audience stood up to report independent testing that shows ongoing exposure to vinyl chloride and benzene. They pointed to urinalysis results indicating elevated amounts of thiodiglycolic acid, which is produced as vinyl chloride degrades in the body.
They were outraged they had never been told that over half of the workers from the Agency for Toxic Substances sent to talk to them on their doorsteps experienced the same symptoms as residents. Four months after the derailment, people said, they still suffer nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, eye irritation, respiratory difficulties and digestive issues.
Like the bosses on the railroad, who exploit workers and push profits over safety, government health authorities tried to turn the blame for these symptoms on working people themselves.
Mark Durno, from the Environmental Protection Agency, had the nerve to say residents’ “lifestyle choices,” like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, eating too many raw onions or taking B-12 supplements, could manipulate the levels of metabolite in the body.
“Or the five cars of vinyl chloride were ignited might also expose as well. We are getting dismissed and it’s very upsetting,” East Palestine resident Linda Murphy countered. “I don’t eat raw onions like apples. I do not take supplements. I do not smoke. I do not drink. Where’s it coming from?”
Protest at State Capitol
Members of the recently organized Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment conducted a protest at the Ohio Capitol in Columbus June 14 to demand Gov. Mike DeWine stop stalling and demand President Joseph Biden declare an emergency. This would free up Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to aid area residents. DeWine has so far refused.
Protester Ashley McCollum, an East Palestine resident, is barred from returning to her home near the derailment site and has been living in a hotel with her family for months. “The worst thing I heard was from my 6-year-old,” she told the protesters, “who said on Mother’s Day, ‘I am sorry I couldn’t get you a new house so we could have a home again.’”
Another protest has been called for July 22 outside the Columbiana County Courthouse to demand the government invoke the Social Security Act to provide Medicare for all. One provision of the law provides free health care to citizens whose health is impacted by environmental disasters.
Many rail workers and area residents are looking to attend the June 21-23 National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the cause of the derailment and ensuing disaster. Hundreds are expected to attend. Sessions will be held in the East Palestine High School gym. Among those scheduled to testify are representatives of Norfolk Southern, Oxy Vinyls — the Texas company that made the vinyl chloride — and some rail union leaders.