Derailment at CSX, toxic fire create crisis in Kentucky town

By Amy Husk
January 1, 2024

LIVINGSTON, Ky. — “The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” said Andrea Johnson. “I’ve had migraines, sores in my nose and throat, and stomach pain.” 

Johnson and other workers who live in this area met with Militant  worker-correspondents Dec. 11 to discuss what they’ve faced since a 16-car CSX train derailment, chemical spill and fire Nov. 22. Residents of this central Kentucky town of 200 were told to evacuate after two cars transporting molten sulfur caught fire after being breached, releasing sulfur dioxide into the air. The chemical can cause serious health issues. 

The railroad says the derailment was caused by an overheating wheel bearing. This was also the cause of the toxic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in February, that brought national attention to rail safety. 

CSX handed out “inconvenience payments” of around $2,000 per household to most area Livingston residents following the derailment. 

Johnson and her husband, Johnny Bowling, own an auto repair shop here. Bowling has been plagued with health problems since the derailment and doesn’t have health insurance.

“My joints are swollen and sore. I can’t work,” he said. “I got the CSX payment but a little money won’t help if it makes me sick the rest of my life. It’s hard enough to live and survive without this.” 

Some local officials have downplayed the issue and praised the response of CSX. “It was a terrible inconvenience for everyone,” Rockcastle Judge/Executive Howell Holbrook Jr. told the local press, “but in my opinion there is really no reason to worry about health issues or the environment.” 

Many residents disagree. Evelyn Scalf works at the Marathon station and has been campaigning to get out the truth about the medical effects of the chemical spill and fire. She reports a lot of nurses from Rockcastle Hospital come into the Marathon station and say that “they’ve been overwhelmed with sick people.” 

Lauren Webb, a firefighter who fought the chemical fire for 13 hours, has since experienced trouble breathing, headaches and respiratory infections. She was one of two women who have filed a class action lawsuit against CSX seeking damages. Others have since joined the case. 

The lawsuit says that CSX places its hot bearing detectors — which detect overheating wheel bearings — too far apart on some less-traveled sections of tracks, including in the Livingston area. 

Two railroad unionists who work in the Lincoln, Nebraska, area, track welder Jakob Forsgren, a member of Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, and Lance Anton, conductor and member of the SMART-Transportation Division, spoke with the Militant  Dec. 17 about recent derailments.

“Railroad union workers have been warning the public for years that the trains are way too long, too heavy, and the railroad bosses have cut workers that are needed to inspect and repair the railroad cars and trackage and operate the trains,” Anton said.

“The rail bosses hate interference, claiming their ‘business secrets’ are only their business. We as union railroad workers urge working people in the Livingston area to organize together, contact local rail unions and other unionists to get support and solidarity,” said Forsgren.

“Workers and their unions are the only true defenders of industrial safety and can lead a fight for workers control under union power to enforce it.”