The St. Louis Post-dispatch on how railroad deregulation carries steep cost for cities like East Palestine:
Three weeks after the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which forced evacuations and widespread chemical contamination, the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Norfolk Southern Railroad to conduct the cleanup and pay for the damages. Since the accident was Norfolk Southern’s fault, and it was solely responsible for the toxic dangers affecting East Palestine, the EPA order seemed more like a Captain Obvious declaration. But the railroad actually had been hoping it could do the work on a voluntary basis, on its own timetable and by its own rules and cost structures.
In other words, keep government out of it. The nation’s railroads have, for decades, pushed hard to loosen government controls so they can move cargo with fewer restrictions and minimize costly safeguards — which is precisely why East Palestine residents now face a long-term crisis. Railroad deregulation comes at a potentially steep price to communities across the country, including St. Louis, that just want to be kept informed so they can prepare in case disaster strikes.
Gov. Mike Dewine of Ohio might be the newest Republican to recognize that his party’s constant push for government deregulation, while great for corporate profits, is a lousy deal for everyone else. Dewine told reporters on Feb. 14 that the railroad company was not legally required to alert anyone in Ohio about the toxic cargo because only some of the cars were carrying hazardous materials.
“Frankly, if this is true, and I’m told it’s true, this is absurd,” Dewine said. “Congress needs to take a look at how these things are handled.”
Since the 1980s, the nation’s railroads have championed deregulation to reverse a slump that saw rail systems fall into disrepair and derailments skyrocket. Consolidation of ownership and new investment helped them climb back to profitability. But a major drawback, as Dewine pointed out, is that the communities through which rail lines pass rarely have a clue about the rail-car contents in their midst.
Chlorine gas is one of the most abundantly shipped toxic cargoes, essential for the water purification that keeps tap water safe for drinking. But it can be deadly if released because of a derailment. In 2005, two Norfolk Southern trains collided in Graniteville, South Carolina, causing a massive release of chlorine gas that killed nine, sickened 250 and forced 5,400 residents to evacuate. Highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a favorite ingredient of terrorist bombs, regularly travels in bulk on America’s railroads. The maximum fine for railroad safety violations is a paltry $225,455.
By not requiring railroads to inform cities of the dangerous cargo moving through their neighborhoods, the federal government risks disaster, literally, at every turn. Local first responders must have a fighting chance to save lives.
Derailments have happened since the dawn of railroads. But death and disaster must never be the cost of railroads’ ability to make a buck.