This is where I scribble a little bit about what’s going on. Warning: may include righteous anger and typos.
Okay. This is overwhelming. I’m not going to lie. It’s also simultaneously the most exciting thing that’s happened in my work life in recent memory. And I once smashed a couple of Michelob Ultras with Elizabeth Warren in a Winnebago in the middle of Iowa. Might not be your idea of a great time, but if it isn’t, you’re a square. I said what I said.
I’m talking about East Palestine, of course. For those who are new around here, East Palestine is 20 miles away from my hometown and 60 miles away from where I live. I’ve followed this story since before it began.
I find out more and more each day, and I think it’s safe to say that this story deserves a long look. I intend to stick to it for a while. There are so many things I wish were produced right now, but I currently lack the people power to produce them rapidly… so stay tuned!
Any minute now, the NTSB will release its latest report where we’re likely to learn the official cause of this derailment. They’ve hinted that it was the wheel bearing on a train car that was captured burning gloriously on ring doorbell cameras up to 20 miles before the train derailed in East Palestine.
This will likely be deemed a simple mechanical failure, the kind of inconvenient accident that, if your luck is bad, can result in the derailment and subsequent detonation of a train full of hazardous chemicals in the middle of your town.
Our reporting would suggest that the probable origin of the mechanical failure is rooted in a constellation of reckless profiteering, affecting all sectors of railroad operation, on the part of major rail carriers. Getting struck by lightning is an accident. Dying in a fire because the landlord let the fire escape fall apart is different.
Another thing to note. Much is being made of the regulations that Trump rolled back on braking and hazardous material designations. While these regulations would have lessened the severity of this disaster, other factors are likely to be more causal. There’s a good chance that focusing on Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, as with everything Trump-related, will distract attention from important factors in this specific and… uniquely bad derailment.
Transcript of my interview with Frank Cappello of The Lever on Feb 21st.
Frank Cappello 44:25
Okay, now for our bonus segment just for our paid subscribers. This week, we'll be sharing my interview with independent journalist John Russell, who has been on the ground in East Palestine for the last couple of weeks, speaking with the railroad workers and union leaders about this train derailment disaster.
John has been doing some really incredible reporting and is another great example of the importance of independent journalism. Thank you so so much for being a supporting subscriber and funding the work that we do here at the lever. Now, here's that bonus segment.
All right, I'm now joined by John Russell, an independent journalist who has been on the ground in East Palestine for the last couple of weeks. John, thank you so much for joining us on labor time today.
John Russell 45:08
Yeah, thanks for having me, Frank. I'm really glad to be here and talk about it.
Frank Cappello 45:11
Alright, so as we mentioned, you've been in East Palestine on and off for the last couple of weeks. You were there only a few days after the train derailment actually happened and the ensuing chemical fire. So just for the audience, for our listeners, can you give me a little bit of the lay of the land? Like what is it looked like on the ground? What is the government response look like? What is the media response look like? And most importantly, what has been happening with the residents?
John Russell 45:38
Yeah, I grew up in this county and I live close by, so this hits close to home. And unfortunately, this area, it's really important to know, is used to disasters by giant corporations. We're kind of under-covered in that respect.
The government response here has been bumbling at best. Immediately after the disaster, it appeared that even the highest ranking officials were not as aware of everything as the company was, you know, clearly didn't have information to work on that ended up coming out later, about what was on the train.
In the town hall at the high school, residents were being reassured about their water, while the water fountains at the school were padlocked with, you know, red devices that had danger written all over them. Residents have been reporting all kinds of illnesses, and there are multiple reports of sick or dead livestock in the region immediately after the disaster.
The media, there's there's every variety of media here now. But the line of questions have been mostly about how much cancer we're gonna get and when we're gonna get it, not why this disaster happened and what it could have to do with reckless profiteering by major rail carriers. I think you know, that's as important as anything around here, that's gone a little bit under covered.
Frank Cappello 47:05
No, if anything is the one of if not the most important aspects of this story. So you were at that very, very first press conference, which was in East Palestine High School? Is that correct?
John Russell 47:19
Yeah, not the high school, but at the elementary school.
Frank Cappello 47:23
So other than a few independent journalists like yourself, which other media outlets actually showed up for this first press conference?
John Russell 47:32
Yeah, you know what I think this is a reflection of, you know, the media today that's especially been affected by consolidation.
The notable thing at that first press conference that I went to, 10 days ago, was that the first outlets that showed up to cover this, most of them, and it's not all of them, but most of them were owned by really large conglomerates, like Sinclair or like NexStar. Sinclair and Nexstar both share similarities with Norfolk Southern in that they both have significant shares of their companies that are owned by the same large Wall Street private equity funds. That's an angle that's something to consider here, in the first response to disasters like this.
And you know, unsurprisingly, I think, that probably has to do a lot with the line of questioning focusing, you know, on how much cancer we're going to get, and when. That definitely needs to be covered, but not at the expense of corporate accountability, which I've seen less of. This sometimes falls into reporting as a freak accident. But a freak accident is being struck by lightning, which is different than dying in a fire because your landlord didn't maintain the smoke alarms.
Frank Cappello 48:45
So you have been speaking with railroad workers, not only in the wake of this disaster, but you were also speaking with a lot of workers since the end of 2022, when the Biden administration and Congress forced a contract onto the railroad unions that they had not agreed to, which effectively broke a potential rail strike. Now you're here in East Palestine. You're speaking with rail union leaders after this derailment. So what have you been hearing? What is their take? What are the workers and the union leaders take on how and why this disaster occurred?
John Russell 49:22
Yeah, this is kind of the incredible thing because rail workers have been warning about something like this for a very long time. I originally was reporting on the rail strike that never was. You mentioned how, you know, that was crushed by a bipartisan coalition of Congress and respective agencies that forced a contract on these workers.
But seven weeks before this derailment I was speaking with union leaders about that strike, who warned me at the time that it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. They recounted derailments in Northeast Ohio of cars carrying candle wax and were saying, you know, we got lucky in a couple of these and, unfortunately, they were right. And we really should have listened to them the first time. Because they've also, rail workers, have been pretty unanimous in laying a lot of the blame for this on the corporate profit-seeking practice of Precision Scheduled Railroading. That is an angle that really needs to be understood and reported.
Frank Cappello 50:20
And we've talked about it here at the level of precision scheduled railroading is basically, you know, the rail companies tout it as the most efficient way to run their freight. But really what it means is that they can run way, way, way more freight, much longer trains, with much less manpower, with actually less people on the trains, which, as you've laid out, as we've been talking about, makes for the perfect storm of you know, less people being able to make sure these trains are safe, and they're moving much more freight, making it much harder for these trains to stop when these, you know, when things like this happen. So that's really, really important to point out.
As we have also reported at The Lever, sort of the big story we, you know, first broke a few weeks ago, both the railroad industry and the chemical industries successfully lobbied to water down the safety rules regarding rail braking systems and the classification and regulation of toxic chemicals like the vinyl chloride, which was being carried by this train in East Palestine. You've also been speaking to the rail workers about this specific derailment, which they are saying was caused by a wheel bearing issue rather than the brake system. So can you go into a little bit of detail about that? Because I don't think this is something that our audience has really heard about yet.
John Russell 51:43
I can go into a lot of detail about that. I'm very glad you asked that question. So yes, the NTSB suggested in their first update on Valentine's Day that a faulty wheel bearing that overheated catastrophically probably caused this East Palestine derailment. We won't know for sure until their investigation wraps up in a few weeks. But there's video of this wheel bearing glowing white hot for as much as 20 miles before the derailment. And this was caught by ring doorbell cameras, security footage, etc.
Rail workers have been telling me about this wheel bearing since I arrived here. And they've also told me that PSR, precision scheduled railroad, has put pressure on every aspect of how the railroads are run, including inspection and maintenance on things like wheel bearings.
So you did a pretty good overview on PSR. But it was adopted by most major rail carriers. And it cuts everything important. There's less staff, less training, less safety, less maintenance, and longer trains, shorter downtimes, less rest for the staff that hasn't been cut. So PSR reduced the time and the staff to inspect cars for safety. Inspection times were cut in half, the industry standard was usually three minutes per rail car, and PSR cut that down to 90 seconds per car with less staff to do it.
Also, PSR has cut the staff that monitors problems on trains. And this is important, too. There are things called trending defect detectors, and they work like checkpoints. So as the train passes, they pick up on problems and they tell a dispatch center as the problems get worse. And when it's bad enough, the dispatch center notifies the crew on the train. But PSR has cut the staff so that there are less people monitoring more trains across a larger territory. And sometimes when the warning reaches the crew, under these conditions, it is too late.
So the NTSB report is going to provide answers on what caused this tragedy. But putting profits above all else appears to have created critical failures of maintenance and monitoring. That may be more immediate factors in this disaster than braking systems or hazardous materials designations. Although that was excellent reporting by The Lever on those regulations that should be in effect right now. Because had these braking system has been updated and the chemicals classified accurately this disaster and the response likely would have been much less terrible.
Frank Cappello 54:21
Alright, now let's let's dig into that a little bit more because as we've already mentioned, one of the main aspects of the story that cannot be stressed enough is the role played by Norfolk Southern, the rail company that was operating this train, as well as the Association of American Railroads, which is the rail industry's main lobbying arm. So I'm I'm curious, John, what the residents in East Palestine think in terms of, you know, I guess who they're blaming for all of this. What is their conception of how this disaster unfolded and, and whose feet to lay the blame at?
John Russell 54:56
Yeah, I've talked to a lot of residents. I mean, I grew up here (in the county) and when I showed up to that town hall, I spent a lot of time as a kid running around this county, and at least five or six people I knew from high school pulled me out of line to do interviews. And what they told me... And you know, by the way, these are people of all different voting behaviors. But I can tell you that there is a lot of rage at the fact that this $55 billion company detonated a toxic train in the middle of town and offered not one, but several insultingly low sums of money to make up for it. The first one was like $25,000. Just $25,000. Sorry, not sorry. Then it was $1,000 handouts to people in the blast zone. And to top it all off, the Norfolk Southern... this company, they canceled last minute on the town hall that they were involved in planning. And residents, I can tell you, did not feel great about that.
So to my knowledge, also, there was a pretty stunning lack of high-level executives here to be held accountable. They didn't show up to my knowledge in town for at least two weeks, and today is the first time that I've been aware of their CEO being here. So that doesn't make people feel good at all. And I think they deserve a measure of accountability much higher than this.
Frank Cappello 56:20
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this disaster is potentially devastated this entire town, this entire county, region, we won't know the ongoing long-term effects of what is happening for a long time, and someone needs to step up and take care of these people because they have just lost more than most of us can ever even fathom.
Speaking of which just earlier today, you met up with former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner to speak with East Palestine residents as they were entering a new health center. So tell me first a little bit about this health center. And then also, what did you and Nina discuss, and how are residents doing now almost three weeks after this train has derailed?
John Russell 57:05
Well, everybody's doing the best they can to get by, which is what people have been up to in this valley for years and years. I mean, the thing that stands out to me when I was interviewing residents at the at the first center that was set up was a woman, probably in her mid 50s, who was telling me about how she was doing. She was making $13.50 an hour living less than a half a mile away from this derailment and raising grandkids and, you know, you have to ask yourself what a disaster like this does to the wealth that that person worked so hard to build in their home? Who's gonna want to buy that home? Can they move out of there? Will they be compensated?
These are still questions, residents are scrambling to answer. And they're not only scrambling here, but they're also scrambling in the places that Nina Turner and I talked a lot about when she came to visit.
From Flint, Michigan, to the Mississippi Delta, to cancer alley, to East Palestine, black, white, or brown, working-class communities are regularly sacrificed for profit-seeking of the highest order from the largest corporations that operate with impunity here. And class solidarity is the way to change all of that. We need to unite as communities that are subject to these companies and unite on class lines to exercise the power of strength. This more than most national disasters like this has really brought that into focus.
Frank Cappello 58:36
John, I want to thank you so much for all of the work you have been doing all of the on-the-ground reporting that you've been doing over the last couple of weeks, even before we knew that this story was going to become as, I mean, obviously, it's an important story rather, I should say, until we knew that this story was going to get the coverage that it deserved. You have been on the ground doing this work. So thank you so so much for all of your commitment to this community and to letting people know what has been happening. So where can our audience find you? If they'd like to find more of you and your reporting?
John Russell 59:09
They can find me in my newsletter, I run a newsletter called The Holler, that talks about class politics for rednecks and hippies. It's free, no paywall, so go there, and then you can find social updates @heyjohnrussell across all the social platforms.
Frank Cappello 59:29
John, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it.
John Russell 59:32
Thank you, Frank, and thanks to the lever for the excellent reporting that you've done on it.
Frank Cappello 59:37
That's it for today's show. Thank you again for being a paid subscriber to the lever. It's true, we really could not do this work without you. If you particularly liked this episode, please pitch into our tip jar. That link is in the episode description in your podcast player or you can go to levernews.com/tipjar every little bit helps us do this kind of independent accountability journalism. Till next time I am Frank Capello. Rock the boat.