As toxic waste removal continues from the East Palestine train derailment, many local residents fear the ecological and health fall-out from the disaster and are demanding urgent answers.
Back on February 3rd, a total of 38 railroad cars derailed, including 11 carrying hazardous materials. Upon derailing the train burst into 100-foot flames, resulting in a catastrophic environmental disaster.
The fallout from the tragedy is palpable in the local community. “It’s totally wrecked our life,” East Palestine resident John Hamner recently told the BBC. “I’m at the point now where I want out of here,” he added. “We’re going to relocate. We can’t do it no more.” Residents are now calling it their Chernobyl moment. There was an old life before. There is a new life after. Nothing will ever be the same again.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that thousands turned out to a town hall meeting with the celebrated environmental lawyer, Erin Brockovich, last Friday night.
The turnout far exceed expectations. A packed house, a packed overflow location and 5k streaming participants. Just an amazing spirit.
This town is so inspiring and together I believe they can accomplish anything. https://t.co/f3wSKhMODq
— Erin Brockovich (@ErinBrockovich) February 25, 2023
“Unfortunately, this is not a quick fix,” Brockovich told the worried residents, warning them of the potential long-term health and environmental dangers from the toxic chemicals spilt and burnt due to the derailment.
She added: “I’ve never seen in 30 years a situation like this…I feel your angst, and I feel your frustration. And I want to share something with you; you’re not alone.” Brockovich called on the government to provide urgent answers as to why local residents were experiencing coughs and respiratory problems and what the health risks of the disaster were.
But Brockovich has not been the only visitor to East Palestine. Predictably, the GOP and political right have been quick to try and exploit the disaster both in the town and on the airwaves.
As Trump exploited the disaster, it is worth remembering that his administration gutted 100 federal safety laws, including weakening routine rail safety audits following accidents and throwing out minimum staffing levels on freight trains. It is hardly surprising the Democratic National Committee hit back saying Trump and his administration rolled back “transportation safety and environmental rules, including toxic chemical regulations.”
Trump is not alone in trying to exploit the crisis. The right-wing media, “has seized on this moment to launch baseless conspiracies about why the government’s response has been so poor,” reports the Guardian. “According to them, the Biden administration has abandoned East Palestine because the people living there are white, poor and working class.”
Controversial Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson has been at the forefront of trying to use the race card. He said, “East Palestine is overwhelmingly white and it’s politically conservative.”
Playing the racial culture wars card in East Palestine is a diversionary tactic about what really caused this disaster. As Greg Sargent notes in the Washington Post, the derailment is about “profit-driven rail companies underinvesting in safety” and “lobbyists weakening rail regulation.”
The bottom line, as I wrote earlier this month, is that America’s railroads are broken. The system is broken, potentially putting tens of millions of Americans at risk, no matter their color. There are a staggering 1,000 train derailments each year in America. It is estimated that some 25 million Americans live within one mile of rail lines that carry toxic crude oil or chemicals. The number of households within blast distance if a train explodes is even greater.
Greg Sargent was right to point out that the disaster also shows how corrosive money remains in American politics. As the independent Lever News website reports, “Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s track record and rail company links raise questions about his ability to hold the rail giant accountable for the derailment disaster.”
Lever News reports that “Norfolk Southern and its political action committee (PAC) have donated more than $20,000 directly to DeWine’s gubernatorial campaigns as well as his 2019 inauguration. The company has also delivered $165,000 to political committees supporting DeWine’s political career, including the Republican Governors Association and the Republican Attorneys General Association.”
Unless we kick dirty money out of politics and put communities and safety first, there will be more disasters. Until then, the people of East Palestine deserve the dignity of the truth and whether their air is safe to breathe and water safe to drink. Unfortunately, it may be decades before we know the truth, as Brockovich has pointed out. Meanwhile, she and colleagues have set up a new website to help residents. For more information, go here.