Railroaded. The Norfolk Southern Disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. Part One.
Rail workers warned us about a preventable disaster like this.
Some of the news from the Ohio Valley
This is where I scribble a little about the last week around here. Warning: may include righteous anger and typos.
As I rolled past the “Welcome To East Palestine” sign this week, I thought about the last time I was there. It was a sweethearts dance at the high school circa 2006. It wasn’t my school, but in a small rural county, sometimes you find a sweetheart at another tiny high school in the middle of nowhere. She’s usually hanging out at the county fair. Mine was.
This visit was a lot less fun. A Norfolk Southern train carrying volatile toxic chemicals derailed and exploded… AHEM… underwent a “controlled release”, as the company, authorities, and mainstream news media have deemed it.
I had to sneak into town. Cops blocked off the main roads, and it turns out that I don’t pass for “the press”. It could have been my mullet, Carhartt, and a bag full of clearly amateur video gear. These are the trappings of a man who is less mainstream media and more… barely influential 32-year-old with an axe to grind on TikTok.
The county mounties forgot that I learned the backroads around here as a raging 16-year-old hormone monster on the way to a sweethearts dance. I snuck past the roadblocks.
Scroll all the way down for the first reporting video of this series. This is my newsletter dammit. If I want to do my best imitation of a recipe blog with a long nostalgic ramble about my life before delivering the goods, then that’s what I’m going to do.
The Upper Ohio Valley is no stranger to dangerous polluting industries. It’s home base for such enterprise. Look no further than our billboards for black lung benefits and class action lawsuit payouts that read like an anthology of misfortune at work.
Industrial dystopia abounds. Even Donald Trump’s C+ speech writers nailed a fundamental truth about decline in parts of the country like this. His inaugural speech described “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”
It’s true. One 35-mile drive around here is a grand tour through American carnage, at least to the untrained eye. I brought a friend home from college who remarked on the similarity between the Ohio Valley and District 12 from the Hunger Games.
There’s Little Blue Run, formerly the nation’s largest fly ash waste lake before its recent remediation. When my friends at college asked where I was from, I used to whip out Google Earth and show them how the lake glowed phosphorescent blue from space. My house was six miles away as the crow flies.
There’s the coal-fired power plant, one of Ohio’s largest, that filled the lake with fly ash and was saved from closure, briefly, thanks to a 60 million-dollar bribery scandal that muscled through one of the nation’s most notorious energy laws - H.B. 6.
And the trains of hot garbage. How can we forget those? Ohio is famous for promoting a business-friendly environment in the most cringe ways imaginable. One example would be the billboards in Manhattan begging rich people to come here and evade taxes.
Another would be the open invitation for New York and New Jersey to send trains of hot garbage our way to take advantage of our lax dumping laws. One of those trains of hot garbage crashed into the Ohio River two months ago. You probably didn’t hear about it.
Then there’s fracking. Halliburton pulled some of its war machine out of Iraq and plunked it down where there’s something even better than Texas Tea - Appalachian Shale Gas. 32.5 billion cubic feet come from the ground of 20 Appalachian counties *every single day*, and we have the drinking water to prove it.
And coal. And steel. And plastics. We get all the dirty shit that rich people kick out of their backyards.
But my favorite industrial nightmare is Heritage Thermal, the nation’s largest hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, OH, seen below billowing bright pink smoke into the sky after someone forgot, and this is true, to add enough other chemicals that dye the smoke a much less ominous white.
Heritage Thermal, formerly WTI, holds a special place in my heart. Almost a decade before I was born, my dear sweet mother, a career home economics teacher at Wellsville High School, donned a hazmat costume to protest its construction.
Welcome, dear subscribers, to yet another industrial tragedy in the place of my birth, the place I left for ten years, and the place I came back to - The Upper Ohio Valley. You haven’t heard of us unless you are us. And as you may have gathered from above, we’ve been going through bullshit here for a long, long time.
For now, the next couple of episodes are going to be about the Norfolk Southern Disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.
I reported on the rail strike months ago where workers predicted a catastrophe like this. I talked with lifelong East Palestine residents in the emergency assistance shelter figuring out their next moves. And I asked questions to Ohio’s Governor and Norfolk Southern flacks at a press conference… where a black male reporter was thrown to the ground and cuffed for doing his job. I got that on my TikTok live feed.
We have a lot to talk about. Here’s the first installment I did as a collaboration with More Perfect Union.
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Railroaded - The Northfolk Southern Disaster in East Palestine, Ohio Part One
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John Russell 0:03
Rail workers warned us about a disaster like this. I heard firsthand months ago about the corporate practice of Precision Scheduled Railroading.
Precision Scheduled Railroading is shorter staff, longer hours, longer trains, less safety, less maintenance. Do I have all that right?
Clyde Whitaker, State Legislative Director, SMART-TD Union, 22-year railroader 0:19
You got it all right. A lot of the derailments you're seeing on national TV, it's one of the few things. It's lack of maintenance on the track where they've cut the track gangs too short and they can't get out to fix it. Or they've cut the Carmen's, which is a union that works on the rail cars. So we had one derailment here in Northeast Ohio, where a wheel flange was very thin, and it picked a switch. And derailed the entire train. Luckily it was full of candle wax and not something highly volatile.
John Russell 0:46
Rail workers tried to strike over this stuff, but were stopped by Congress. A few weeks later and here we are. Several Norfolk Southern cars of toxic, highly volatile chemicals exploded, fantastically, in the tiny town of East Palestine, Ohio twenty miles from where I grew up. So I met Clyde in East Palestine to ask him about it.
Clyde Whitaker 1:04
It looks like a faulty bearing caused a catastrophic derailment. These railroads are turning profits hand over fist. They've cut their workforce to bare bones. And now they're paying the price for it because the wheels are falling off the train basically. Carmen were inspecting cars about three minutes per car. That's always been the industry standard. Now it's 90 seconds per car.
John Russell 1:28
Is that because of PSR?
Clyde Whitaker 1:30
Yes. It's a rush job right now. These guys are under pressure. I mean, they're working men and women. And, you know, if they don't hurry up and get this car done, they're gonna be fired.
John Russell 1:42
Great points. So I went to a press conference with Norfolk Southern and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to ask them about this.
John Russell 1:49
What could precision scheduled railroad have to do with the axel failure that caused the derailment?
Norfolk Southern Spokesperson 1:56
I have no idea. It's a mechanical issue. While precision scheduled railroading is a management process.
John Russell 2:05
Not a great answer. And that's probably because Norfolk Southern let a worker take the fall, rather than a single corporate executive showing up in the town, that they polluted, to be held accountable.
John Russell 2:17
You see Wall Street owns Norfolk Southern 74% of shares are owned by a who's who of infamous hedge funds (correction: 74% of shares are owned by "institutional investors", the largest of which are hedge funds).
And this is the business model that they demand. Profit at any cost. And a disaster like this is simply a cost of doing business. They cut everything, make all the money, and pay off disasters in tiny flyover towns from the profit.
But instead of answering for any of that, they're betting that the corporate media, under the same pressure for extreme profit as railroads, will only ask questions about how much cancer people will get and not why this preventable disaster happened.
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John, I just discovered you on Twitter today, came over to The Holler, and subscribed before I finished the first post. Happy to support the important work you do -- especially with its perfect blend of well-earned vitriol and wry humor.
“DeWine said the release of chemicals could be deadly if inhaled. It could also cause skin burns or serious lung damage.”(NPR) I’ll take corporations that won’t be held accountable for 200. These corporations get told to pay a settlement of what equates to chump change for them and all is forgotten. In all seriousness I feel poorly for everyone involved, especially firefighters being exposed to even more chemicals that they then will receive no compensation for. Tired of this area of the US being treated like a dumpster for corporations. Coming from the rust belt my father used to tell me stories about working on houses and he’d remove a wall and have a few gallons of rust fall out from behind it. Yet they were always told it was safe. Now we have some of the highest rates of thyroid diseases in the US. Not to mentioned being told not to eat fish that came from Lake Erie- as I’m sure everyone has experienced. Not so much an issue anymore apparently but, we still have multiple rivers/creeks that we are told to only eat fish from every 6 months. Just a few months ago Exxon accidentally spilled gas into a creek by my house, and they said they were investigating who is at fault. Anyway I apologize for the long winded comment. First time commenting, your reporting on the railroads has been superb, been following you on tiktok for a while, congrats on the collab with More Perfect Union! Even had Robert Reich put you on his story! Hopefully this connects more and more people to understand how important this is. Keep up the great work!