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Something Isn't Right in East Palestine
We're back with a heart-wrenching episode about the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
For Candice DeSanzo of East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 3 was an ordinary day, just as so many she’s spent in the village of about 5,000 people. At around 9 p.m., its stillness was shattered by a loud “boom” and screams shrieking through her 10-year-old son’s FaceTime call with friends.
The girls on the other end said there was a fire, and reported what appeared to be a train wreck in East Palestine, which has a long history of freight derailments, including a 1973 incident that killed one person and injured 19 others.
DeSanzo walked over to the porch.
“That's when I could see that big, huge plume of smoke in the air,” she tells News Beat.
The smoke was billowing from a Norfolk Southern train that derailed en route to Conway, Pa., likely caused by overheated wheel bearings. Thirty-two cars derailed and the ensuing fire caused damage to 12 other cars, according to investigators. Eleven of the 20 cars carrying vinyl chloride, polyethylene, and other combustible and flammable gases and liquids were among those that left the tracks.
DeSanzo saw the scene play out from her house, perched atop a hill. She watched as fire engines from East Palestine and surrounding communities descended on the smoldering, twisted, toxic wreckage.
Feeling a sense of unease, DeSanzo called her husband, who works at the school district. He tried to project calm.
“I think we need to leave,” she responded.
A subsequent “controlled burn”—the incineration of deadly, cancer-causing chemicals—spawned a menacing mushroom cloud that grew so uncontrollably that the scene began to resemble a dystopian science fiction movie, with the thick, chemical-laced smog flattening out as it made its ascent.
Aside from a brief and cramped stay at a hotel after they were ordered to evacuate, it would take weeks before DeSanzo and her family would be able to escape the derailed train’s plume of misery. She fears that during the time they were effectively trapped in East Palestine, the damage had already been done. Her kids fell ill and rashes appeared after showering.
“We started with the headaches, nosebleeds,” she says. “I mean, I get stomach pains that are so bad that it'll stop me dead in my tracks where I'm bending over in pain.”
Soon, government officials and journalists would converge on the village to figure out the extent of the wreckage and its impact on the community.
A freelance reporter for Status Coup News, Louis DeAngelis, decided to build relationships with residents, interview experts, and independently assess what the hell happened, and what was being done, if anything, to help the people whose lives were suddenly upended.
Like DeSanzo, DeAngelis developed a curious feeling.
“Something is not right in East Palestine,” he said.
Why We Covered This Topic
The Norfolk Southern train derailment is perhaps one of the largest environmental disasters in recent memory, has uprooted people from their homes, and left those with no choice but to stay questioning whether the air, ground, and water are safe. Two months after the derailment, residents remain unsatisfied with reassurances from state and federal officials and are distrustful of the rail operator, Norfolk Southern, which eight days before the crash reported record profits, including $3.2 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2022.
This apocalyptic hellscape was made even worse days after the train’s derailment when officials determined that to avert an even more catastrophic explosion, they needed to intentionally vent and set ablaze more of its toxic chemicals—including the human carcinogen vinyl chloride—creating yet another raging inferno and ominous mushroom cloud spreading who-knows-what for miles.
Important side note: Burning vinyl chloride creates phosgene—used by Germany and the Allies to kill trenches of soldiers during World War One—and dioxins—persistent organic pollutants that even the EPA warns are quote “highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones.”
This is also a story about how corporate greed and deregulation can have disastrous consequences. As you’ll hear from Julia Rock, an investigative reporter with The Lever, an independent outlet, the derailment in East Palestine—along with others in the news since—has been decades in the making. At the same time, rail companies, in the name of efficiency, have reduced their workforces, overworked those still on the job, and refused to provide adequate benefits—all the while raking in massive profits and conducting lucrative buyback schemes.
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
The impact on the community has been considerable. After the derailment and subsequent fire, about 2,000 people were ordered to evacuate. Five days later, residents were told they could return home because air quality samples were purportedly “below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern,” according to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s office. That was before anyone had even tested for dioxins. (There has since been confirmation that dioxins, unsurprisingly, are in the soil in East Palestine.)
Residents such as Candice DeSanzo have been confronted with a near-impossible choice. With her children already developing illnesses that they never had prior to the derailment, DeSanzo wants to leave East Palestine, the community she loves, but can’t just pick up and go due to financial concerns. The median household income in East Palestine is $44,498—nearly $20,000 below the state average, according to U.S. Census data. It’s a crushing feeling for families who desperately want to protect their children and themselves but can’t afford to leave. “When I go to lay down at night, how do I know that I'm not going to ever wake up to see my five boys again?" DeSanzo asks News Beat.
As we mentioned earlier, the rail industry for decades has pushed for deregulation, going so far as to block widespread implementation of modern braking systems that itself once championed. According to Rock, Norfolk Southern in 2007 was among the first to equip a train with so-called electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes and “brag[ged] to investors in [its] newsletter, that these new brakes can reduce train stopping distances by up to 60%”—which effectively means a train can stop much more quickly in case of an emergency. That’s compared to the Civil War-era breaking technology that’s currently in use, which can cause cars to run into each other.
After a freight train derailment in 2013 killed 47 people in Quebec, the Obama administration adopted regulations stipulating trains carrying hazardous materials, including crude oil, must be equipped with ECP brakes. Rail groups, led by the Association of American Railroads, which routinely spend millions each year lobbying lawmakers, successfully got the Senate to include a line in an omnibus transportation bill tying the brake provision to a cost-benefit analysis. “A cost-benefit analysis is done—heavily reliant on data provided by industry,” says Rock. “The Trump administration repeals the rule. It's sort of later found by a big investigation by Associated Press that the cost-benefit analysis had been faulty.”
The derailment came on the heels of a labor dispute in which unions representing rail workers threatened to strike because they receive little to no paid time off. Congress, with the backing of the Biden administration, which has hailed itself as pro-union, imposed a contract on workers that didn’t include paid time off. As Rock explains, the imposing work schedule is part of an industry theory called precision scheduled railroading (PSR). Here’s how a New York Times opinion columnist explained it: “Average train length grew around 25 percent from 2008 to 2017, and companies now regularly run trains that are three miles long. Our infrastructure isn’t built for these monster trains, which are now so long that many no longer fit the tracks designed to allow trains to pass one another. These trains are almost always overseen by a crew of just two people, who must walk for miles if a problem is found, in all kinds of weather. The trains are difficult to control, and if weight is unevenly distributed along them, they may break apart or even derail.”
Who We Interviewed & What They Said
This is potentially much bigger than we are realizing, unfortunately. The unfortunate reality is…I'm talking to more experts on the topic, I talked with some on the ground, these are professors with doctorates in these sorts of studies—studying chemistry, and chemicals, and explosions, and engineering, and all of the sort of pieces to all of this—the message that they're giving is a very grim one: That the appropriate tests aren't being done. So when we have the EPA or the testers that are being contracted out, literally by the railroad that caused this, they're saying, ‘The tests are coming back fine, everything's fine, you're all good, everything's fine.’ The experts that I'm talking to are saying, ‘Look, sure those tests might be coming back fine, but they are not testing for the right things.’
Candice DeSanzo, a lifelong, multigenerational resident of East Palestine. DeSanzo’s children fell ill after the derailment, suffering from terrible coughs, tightening lungs, and other medical problems. (DeSanzo and her family have been temporarily relocated since we last interviewed her.)
It makes me absolutely sick that I am being forced to stay here, and being provided no relocation housing, nothing to get my children out of something that could be killing them. And it hurts me, because like I said, it's our job as parents to protect our kids, and I feel that that is being ripped away from me and that I'm not doing that. And when it's going on a month, that a little baby's chest is still rattling and they're having a hard time breathing, I don't care what your tests say. Come and look at my children and tell me what my children's health say[s] to you.
The sort of big picture here is that you'll hear rail workers, you'll hear lawmakers, you'll hear regulators refer to the past 10 or 15 years on the railroads as the 'Buyback Era.’ And what they're sort of referring to is this general trend in which the railroads have been unwilling to spend money—even for things that might lead to long term profit safety and in the short term have just cut costs in all sorts of ways—and a lot of this is happening under the framework of precision scheduled railroading, which is supposed to sort of mean that trains spend have less dwell time, there's less time where trains are sitting in yards not being used, but in practice has meant workforce reductions. It's meant that workers have erratic schedules, have a really hard time scheduling things like paid time off or paid sick leave, which is sort of famously something you cannot schedule. And this ended up being a big part of the story over rail worker contract negotiations over the summer and into the fall before Congress finally intervened and blocked a rail strike and a contract was negotiated between union leadership, the railroads, and the Biden administration.”
The Extraordinary Artist You Heard
Translating the sheer anguish and fury permeating this crisis into incendiary hip-hop verses is our co-artist in residence, Silent Knight. He somehow turns every single syllable on every single episode he joins us into pure electric fire. Listen to more of his incredible lyrical gifts with his supergroup The Band Called Fuse, or solo—at BandCalledFuse.com and linktr.ee/silentknightisbusy. Follow him on Twitter, too, @SilentKnightter.
Check out all the outstanding coverage of the Norfolk Southern rail derailment in East Palestine by Status Coup News. As an independent outlet ourselves, we can’t express enough how important it is to support organizations like Status Coup, which provides on-the-ground reporting on so many important issues.
Here’s drone footage obtained by Status Coup News showing how the so-called “controlled burn” spawned a massive mushroom cloud:
The early reporting on the derailment from The Lever remains must-read material. Here’s a sample of its damning report about how rail deregulation could have terrible consequences: “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.
Here’s Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee
Here’s another video from Status Coup News about the threat posed by dioxins:
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