Our view: Legislation could have prevented the East Palestine Disaster

Will Groves, Opinions Editor

The spillage of hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio, exposed a major problem in the United States: we need more regulations on how hazardous materials and chemicals are handled. 

On Feb. 3, a 150-car freight train from the multi-billion dollar railway company Norfolk Southern derailed in a small town in Ohio called East Palestine. Eleven of these train cars contained the hazardous chemicals vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, which spilled into the town’s waterways and contaminated the soil. There has been chemical spillage into the Ohio River as well, causing concern from other states in the area.. Some of the chemicals were burned by local responders to avoid further contamination of the water, which released the chemicals into the air. The burning of the chemicals created clouds of dark smoke surrounding the town.

The chemicals released in this spill are known to cause liver cancer and respiratory issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of the citizens of the town reported having symptoms of the latter, according to CNN Health. The people of East Palestine are wary of drinking the town’s water, even after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine drank the water from an East Palestinian resident’s tap. The Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for risk of hazardous chemicals is based on safety, not what is healthy. The conditions of East Palestine, although technically safe, is by no means healthy for its citizens

No one should have to worry about health risks from hazardous chemicals in their water and air.

These hazardous chemicals have shown to have dangerous effects on the wildlife surrounding the town. Director of Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources Mary Mertz recently stated over 3,500 fish have been found dead in local streams. This loss of local wildlife is completely unacceptable and could have detrimental effects on the ecosystems of East Palestine.

Norfolk Southern has been  under fire for seemingly trying to suppress and hide stories about their failures in East Palestine. A journalist was even arrested for attempting to livestream an East Palestine town council meeting with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, though the charges were swiftly dropped. We at The News believe multi-billion dollar corporations should not have the power to suppress news stories highlighting the company’s failures.

Norfolk Southern has participated in a growing trend of a lack of concern for safety in favor of higher profits in the railway industry. Norfolk Southern, along with other large railway companies, has lobbied against safety legislation regarding the use of breaks and the number of employees required to be on the train. Since the 1990s, Norfolk Southern has spent around $100 million in lobbying and paying federal legislators to support profit-increasing legislation. This lack of safety concern is troubling and should be a priority for the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

The Obama administration attempted to address this issue by requiring rail cars transporting specific hazardous materials to use electronically-controlled pneumatic brakes. These brakes, while considered too costly by political opponents, allow trains to stop quicker and decrease the risk of derailment. This restriction was overturned in 2018 by former President Donald Trump and has not been reinstated under the Biden administration.

We at The News believe President Joe Biden needs to reinstate this restriction, and Biden should have done so when the Democratic party had a majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate. 

In a press statement from the Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Michael S. Regan says they will “ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community.”

The Environmental Protection Agency required Norfolk Southern to reimburse all cleanup procedures taken by the EPA and other local officials. This is a step in the right direction for Norfolk Southern to right its environmental wrongs, but the people of East Palestine deserve much better than what they’ve been given. Currently, Norfolk Southern has offered $1,000 to every person living in East Palestine, but that amount is not even enough to cover the eventual medical bills from issues caused by the derailment. This payment is not meant to deter civil lawsuits against the company. At this point, multiple class action lawsuits are filed against Norfolk Southern on behalf of the people of East Palestine. The $1,000 payout is a slap in the face to the people of East Palestine whose lives have been uprooted over the past few weeks. 

This spillage should not have happened in the first place, so we must take steps to prevent another East Palestine. The citizens of East Palestine should not have to pay the price for environmental protections that have failed them.