Toxic Ohio Derailment Underscores Urgent Need for Tough Federal Regulation of Rail Industry

Interview with Mel Buer, an associate editor and labor reporter with The Real News Network, conducted by Scott Harris

One month after the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying toxic chemicals in the small Ohio town of East Palestine, many residents continue to experience disturbing health effects while expressing distrust of government officials’ often contradictory messages regarding ongoing environmental hazards.

Workers cited the February derailment as a glaring example of why they fought for new safety regulations and paid sick leave for workers when rail industry unions threatened a strike in early December. That strike was averted when President Biden and Congress intervened to impose a contract deal that failed to address workers’ key demands.

The six major railroad companies that made $22 billion in profits and spent more than $20 billion on stock buybacks and shareholder dividends last year, have largely opposed new federal safety regulations. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mel Buer, an associate editor and labor reporter with The Real News Network, who discusses how lax federal regulation of the rail industry played a role in the toxic chemical derailment in Ohio, and hundreds of similar accidents across the U.S.

MEL BUER: I’ve been covering the railroads from a labor perspective for just about a year, and the one thing that keeps coming up as I’ve been talking to workers over the past year — first covering the contract fight that nearly ended in a nationwide strike last year and now, this derailment — is that the ways in which the rail industry operates in order to maximize their profits accelerates the conditions that lead to these kind of derailments.

When you have trains that are far longer and heavier than they were in previous decades, when you cut staffing across the board, not just on the trains themselves, but the folks who service the truck, who service the trains, who dispatch the trains in various areas, what you have is essentially this recipe for disaster.

And the conversation that we’ve heard over the last two weeks about, “Well, well, this is a common occurrence.” More questions should be asked about why is this so common? Why is it that the rail industry is sort of enabled to engage in such a pernicious lobbying that they have been successful in deregulating this industry to the point that it’s causing a real public safety concern and it’s causing a real safety concern for its workforce.

SCOTT HARRIS: Mel, there’s been a lot of discussion about the rail industry’s influence on government regulations. There have been fingers pointed at Donald Trump and his administration for rolling back some safety brake requirements that the Obama administration had put in place.

But there have been other outlets like The Lever who point out it’s not just the Republican Trump administration that has been a good friend to the rail industry—in terms of not pursuing safety regulations for these railroads—but it’s been a host of presidential administrations from both parties. Maybe you could speak to that.

MEL BUER: Yeah, I mean, that’s really what it comes down to, right? You’re going to be pointing fingers in one direction or another in terms of deregulating this industry. The first one you point out is the rail carriers themselves. They spend millions of dollars a year lobbying Congress to roll back regulations that increase public safety and increase the safety standards of the railroads themselves.

Last year, the rail industry pumped $25 million in lobbying money into Washington in order to continue to be a presence there, right? The Biden administration, the Trump administration, the Obama administration, all of them received this lobbying money. And as a result, you see, for example, in the Obama administration, the regulations that were put in place that we kind of talked about being rolled back by the Trump administration were less strong.

Right? They weren’t as strong as they were originally proposed. And that is the result of a very successful effort—from the perspective of the rail industry—a very successful PR and lobbying campaign to reduce the, you know, the impact of these regulations. The one thing that I would like to see with this is, you know, there is this partisan mudslinging that’s been going over the last couple of weeks where one side is lambasting the other and it just sort of thing kind of obscures what is the real issue here, which is to say federal lawmakers and various regulatory bodies have sort of let this unfettered corporate greed continue without consequence.

And the rail industry has taken that and run with it. And they make billions of dollars in profits per year all while driving their workforce into the ground and, you know, creating these situations where you have these very long, very heavy trains, some of them carrying hazardous materials, going off the rails in working class communities all over this country.

And I think it really underscores the sort of playing political theater with people’s lives is something that very many working people don’t have patience for and find to be missing the point.

SCOTT HARRIS: There have been reports that the water testing being done now to detect what chemicals have leached into the water supply in East Palestine has been conducted by a contractor working for the the railroad. Who’s responsible for this accident? It’s obvious that people in this community are very concerned about the veracity of what they’re being told in terms of the health impacts.

Can you comment on that for us?

MEL BUER: That same testing facility, also according to reporting from the Huffington Post, mishandled the samples. And so, you know, most scientists who are watching this are saying go back and retest the water, right? You should be conducting these independent tests anyways.

You know, my own personal opinion is if you want to get these folks to believe in the transparency of the work that you are doing, then be more transparent, right?

And go back and test this again and be very clear about whose handling what and keep this above board and keep Norfolk Southern’s own contractors out of the equation until you can regain public trust.

Understandably, the public in the village of East Palestine are still feeling the effects of this, and they are terrified. And what they need is more chances to regain that sort of public trust.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Mel Buer (19:39) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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