Economics/Class Relations

It Is Happening Again: Industrial toxicity without industrial employment

It Is Happening Again

Industrial toxicity without industrial employment

Still from footage from the National Transportation Safety Board.

First there was the fire, the smoke billowing infernally into the Appalachian night. It just kept burning. Days of insatiable flame. A black pillar of fumes took up residence above the town like an inert tornado. At its heart, we learned, was the corpse of a train, fifty cars off the rails. Some of them, it was said, were carrying toxic materials. The train had almost reached its destination, the Norfolk Southern freight yard in Conway, Pennsylvania, on the evening of February 3, but catastrophe struck just across the state line. Most accidents happen close to home—in East Palestine, Ohio, in this case, a name that hearkened to a different site of devastation a world away.

Years of Cassandran warnings about the escalating risk of major rail accidents now resound with disturbing clarity. Keen-eyed observers remembered that in 2017, industry lobbying sunk a federal regulatory initiative to mandate electronic braking systems on rail cars carrying hazardous and flammable materials. (“The cost-benefit analyses are not sufficient,” the Department of Transportation explained.) The journalist Aaron Gordon opened his 2021 examination of defective railroad safety protocols with a story about a freight train derailment four years earlier in Pennsylvania, which resulted in the evacuation of the entire town of Hyndman. Thirty-three cars came off the rails, fifteen of which carried hazardous material. Only three leaked or caught fire. “As scary as the derailment in Hyndman was,” Gordon warned, “it could have been much worse.” Well, now we know.


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