The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border that released vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals, has brought to light the dangerous cargoes that are moved daily all around the country, and around the world. A second Norfolk Southern freight train derailment near Springfield, Ohio on March 4 that fortunately wasn’t carrying toxic materials, underscores the ongoing hazard posed by these trains.
[Editor’s update: A Norfolk Southern conductor was killed in accident involving a dump truck at Ohio steel facility March 8. A third Norfolk Southern train derailed in northeast Alabama on March 9, as the company’s CEO testified in front of Congress amid a string of high-profile incidents involving the rail giant.]
U.S. freight trains often use old, unsafe equipment with little or no notification to residents in neighborhoods through which these dangerous “bomb trains” travel. Those residents are most often living in what are called environmental justice communities – with high concentrations of low-income and people of color, who have minimal political power and little or no information about the toxic materials passing through their neighborhoods.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, based in Pennsylvania. Here she talks about the threat posed by toxic train cargo to public safety, health, the environment and the economy, as well as new policies needed to minimize these hazards.
TRACY CARLUCCIO: The problem that we have here in the United States and in many foreign nations as well, is that we insist on moving fossil fuels and dangerous hazardous products all around different states. And the goal is to get it from where it’s manufactured or mined to an end use. And one of the big problems that we have with the way that we are transporting these materials is that they’re not recognized as dangerous as they are and we believe that’s intentional. The reason that there aren’t good regulations in place that govern many of these hazardous materials, the fact that pipelines or highways, or railways, ships and barges transport hazardous materials is because the public is basically kept out of the information about what is really going on, what is going through their backyards what is the potential for harm or disaster or even catastrophe like we saw in Ohio, if these materials were to go off the rails or have an accident on a highway, or if a pipeline were to become destabilized and explode.
When these catastrophes do occur, it’s a grim reminder that we face this danger every single day. It’s just usually out of sight and therefore out of mind. And that’s not good. It’s not good for us as those who might be in the pathway of harm. It’s not good for our economy because it destroys infrastructure as well as people. It destroys natural resources. And then on top of all of that environmentally and in terms of human health, the impacts never go away. As long as we are agreeing as a nation and as a public and as government regulatory agencies that we’re going to allow the extraction in the first place and then the transport of that extracted material, then we are exposing unacceptable, really intolerable threats onto our communities.
So, we really need to start at the origin. We need to stop fracking and we need to replace resources that are extracted from the ground through these very destructive processes and replace them with renewables. We need to replace them with truly clean energy, such as wind and solar and not continue to carry out this extractive process that then necessarily results in transportation and exposing more communities to the dangers of the product itself.
MELINDA TUHUS: You know, moving to clean green energy sounds good, but that’s not gonna happen overnight. So do you have an absolutist position that there just should be none of this, any of this being transported or what do you say in the meantime? Like how do you make it safer or make people more aware of what’s at least what’s happening?
TRACY CARLUCCIO: In the meantime, there are regulations that were proposed during the Obama administration making it more safe to move many of these hazardous materials by rail. Crude oil was one of the issues that had really risen to the top because of all the fracking activity that had boosted the crude oil production and transport. It also was because there was a vinyl chloride — same as in Ohio — a vinyl chloride chemical derailment in New Jersey that harmed a lot of people and there’s still permanent harm from that. And they know because of accidents up to 1,500 derailments a year. Our infrastructure for rail is old. We need new regulations that require stronger rail cars that require pneumatic brakes rather than the old-fashioned air brakes that we’re still using and yet were designed during the Civil War when these things were first used. It’s absolutely outrageous that our government has not taken the action that the Obama administration began to tighten up and make safer the transport of hazardous materials.
However, they were watered down because of lobbying by the industry, particularly Norfolk Southern and other rail companies who stomp around and influence our Congress people and our government to do what they want, rather than what protects the people. They were finally in a watered down state, adopted, and then under the Trump administration they were actually removed.
So now the challenge is to our current government, the Biden administration and the Department of Transportation to start immediately that process. One other really important thing I think, Melinda, is that there has been a real movement on the part of unions that represent train workers and also fire associations to try to get these safety standards in place and also to make sure that there are the proper worker protections in place.
Learn more about efforts to implement new safety measures and prevent dangerous freight train derailments by visiting Delaware River Keeper Network at delawareriverkeeper.org.