A blinding spotlight has been shone on Norfolk Southern, the billion-dollar Class I railroad whose decades of cost-cutting created one of the worst chemical disasters in U.S. history last month.
Article after article has been published detailing the political circus that descended on East Palestine in the wake of the February 4 derailment. Trump’s visit, Buttigieg’s incompetence, the EPA’s floundering. All of this is of course consequential, but what has been left in the shadows of all the reporting is how this disaster has upended the lives of thousands of people in the community – and what awaits them in the coming years.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” a woman told me as I left the East Palestine Rite-Aid last week. “That’s what’s so scary.”
Politicians, lawyers, and advocates have come to town offering advice that ranges from snake oil to important medical suggestions – but all of it has been a blur for community members who say they don’t know who to trust.
Looking For Answers
Thousands of people from East Palestine and the surrounding communities packed into the local high school auditorium on February 24 to hear from environmental advocate Erin Brockovich and a team of lawyers. The mood before Brockovich took the stage was electric, with two overflow rooms also filled to the brim. Nearly everyone had a notepad and pen in hand – ready to get their questions answered. But as has now undoubtedly happened to this community dozens of times in the past month, they walked away no closer to a solution.
Every so often, when one of the lawyers took a moment to catch their breath, bottled up questions would explode from the crowd. “Where can I get my blood tested?” “Will the tests be free?” “What about dioxins?”
While a bizarre Ohio law prevents lawyers from directly answering questions during a public forum, it’s unlikely the answers would have been satisfactory anyway.
One of the things the lawyers underscored many times over was the importance of regular blood and urine tests, particularly to measure exposure to dioxins.
“You’re looking at the potential for dioxin exposure for five to 10 years,” Robert Bowcock – a well-known water expert – told the room. According to the World Health Organization, dioxins are highly toxic and “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”
The lawyers insisted that in order to have a legal case against Norfolk Southern in the future, residents would have to prove through time-stamped blood and urine tests that there were elevated levels of the toxic chemical in their bodies.
Well, here’s where things get even more horrifying for this working-class town. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, blood tests for dioxins are hard to access and can be very costly. The community health clinic set up in the wake of the derailment does not provide any blood and urine testing, and the nearest labs do not appear to test for dioxins.
While the lawyers and advocates all agree that this community will have to fight like hell to get justice, what they don’t say is what this fight will really take. For them to get a fraction of what they’re owed, the people of East Palestine will have to launch an almighty campaign to take on Norfolk Southern – organized around a concrete set of demands with a plan to take the campaign fully national.
Norfolk Southern would prefer to keep this fight in the courts, where they can lean on their army of lawyers and purchased politicians. The community of East Palestine needs to take this fight to the streets, linking up with other towns and cities along the tracks – places that could be the site of the next disaster unless Norfolk Southern is stopped.
What The Community Is Owed
For the past two years, Norfolk Southern has seen more than 10% increases in their yearly operating revenue. In 2021, the company raked in $12.75 billion. In 2022, their profit – the amount they keep after all their bills are paid – was $8.65 billion.
They have more than enough money in the bank to meet the needs of this small community, and if they cannot afford to clean-up their own mess, they should be taken into democratic public ownership along with the rest of the rail industry. Here’s what we need to demand of them and of our government:
Protect Our Health:
- A public and fully-resourced health clinic should be set up in town indefinitely to provide free, regular, and comprehensive blood and urine testing. This needs to include testing for dioxins. This can be paid for by the immediate establishment of a fully transparent and easily-accessible East Palestine Health Fund, 100% paid for by Norfolk Southern but overseen by health experts in the community itself.
- Vinyl chloride exposure is associated with increased risk of angiosarcoma; the people of East Palestine need routine blood tests to check liver functioning. All residents should have full and regular access to a team of oncologists and neurologists to monitor any potential symptoms resulting from exposure to the harmful chemicals.
- All East Palestine residents should be immediately granted Medicare coverage for life. Through a clause in the Affordable Care Act, victims of environmental disasters are eligible for Medicare coverage, but only after the president declares a state of emergency in the area. Joe Biden should take this action immediately.
- Even before this disaster, the hospitals in the greater Akron area were under financial strain. We need fully-funded public hospitals and a transition to a Medicare for All healthcare system so residents do not have to navigate the complicated web of private insurers, providers, and pharmacies to get the care they need.
Ensure Our Homes Are Safe:
- We need an elected community oversight commission to manage all remediation following this disaster. This includes directing regular contamination testing as well as overseeing all clean-up plans.
- Testing should be done by researchers with zero ties to the corporation. They need to be fully compensated and provided with all the equipment they need to test the air, water wells, and dust collected inside East Palestine homes as well as the soil outside.
- The shoddy aeration practices at Sulphur Run and Leslie Run (the two creeks that run through the center of town) should be immediately halted and Norfolk Southern needs to pay for a safe aeration system, overseen by the independent experts, that allows the air to be stripped of toxic chemicals before being released.
- Norfolk Southern should retain professional hazardous material cleaning crews to do regular, free, intensive cleaning of all homes, small businesses, and public buildings. This needs to include regular, free replacement of all air filtration systems.
- If any dangerous contaminants are found inside a home, all residents should be immediately accommodated with free, high-quality, temporary housing.
- Towns across the region are now facing the risk that hazardous material from East Palestine will be disposed of in their community. Norfolk Southern shouldn’t be allowed to quietly dump toxic waste, communities should be fully briefed on any risks associated with waste disposal in their town, and should have a say in where and how the waste is disposed.
The Right To Leave East Palestine:
The reality of this situation is exceptionally bleak. Most people in East Palestine have come to the devastating conclusion that their best chance to avoid chronic illness is to leave town. This means uprooting their entire lives and leaving the land many of their families have lived on for generations. Tragically, they are right – much of the damage from this derailment, and the subsequent cover-up, has already been done and likely will not be resolved for decades.
On a local community Facebook group, one East Palestine woman wrote: “The problem for most of us would come down to money [sic]. You walk away from your home and job, then what, unless you have a huge bank account to start over and most people don’t.”
Norfolk Southern owes every single family in the community a robust buyout offer, allowing them to leave if they chose.
- 70% of people in East Palestine own their homes. According to RedFin, the average East Palestine home price in January was $126,000. Norfolk Southern should be required to offer residents at minimum more than double the pre-crash value of East Palestine homes.
- Many residents of East Palestine are small business owners who will be forced to close down their businesses. Many others will be forced to leave their jobs due to relocation or chronic health problems. Norfolk Southern should give $1 million to every family in East Palestine to weather the cost of lost income, in addition to the buyout of their home.
- After the buyouts are completed, the land should become public property through the use of eminent domain, rather than becoming Norfolk Southern’s property.
- Norfolk Southern should not be allowed to negotiate individually with each household behind closed doors. They need to present a robust buyout offer to the entire community. We’re much stronger when we fight together!
Preventing These Disasters:
Norfolk Southern’s tracks run 21,300 miles across the country, weaving through working-class communities from Tennessee to New Jersey. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, Norfolk Southern sees 163.6 derailments and 2.9 hazardous material releases every year on average. It is only a matter of time before a similarly disastrous accident happens in another working-class community.
- There should be regular information sessions in communities to notify people of what hazardous materials are being transported through their town. Communities should vote on what safety measures are put in place to protect them.
- An end to all cost-cutting “Precision Scheduled Railroading” practices. We need a fully staffed freight system, including an end to one and two-person train crews. Bring back safety standards like meticulous train blocking – where heavy cars were loaded toward the front of the freight. This would require, among other things, fully staffing the train terminals with skilled car inspectors.
- We need an overhaul of the currently defunct federal “Superfund” program. The Superfund was set up by the EPA to inspect and clean up sites contaminated with hazardous materials. In its original form it was funded by a tax on petroleum and chemical manufacturers. However, under President Bill Clinton this tax was allowed to expire. Since 2001, most cleanup of hazardous sites have been paid for by ordinary taxpayers. Biden reintroduced the tax in 2021, though the dollar amount is still far too low. Polluting industries should be heavily taxed to fully fund a “Superfund” program to be overseen by environmental experts and communities affected by hazardous chemical disasters.
- We need a major tax on all polluting industries to fund a green transformation of industry and infrastructure in the U.S. This can create millions of union jobs.
- This entire disaster has shown why the railroads should not be in private hands, run for profit rather than need. Their cost-cutting frenzy over the past several decades is exactly what produced this disaster to begin with. If they cannot afford to clean-up after their mess, then they should be taken into public ownership to be overseen and managed by rail workers themselves who have warned about these dangers for years.
The Fight That’s Needed
Armed with a clear sense of what they’re owed, the people of East Palestine should launch an all out campaign to make Norfolk Southern pay. A first step in this could be organizing a town hall to vote on a set of demands and an escalation strategy including regular protests and even direct action. A campaign like this can take inspiration from other grassroots environmental campaigns like the struggle at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline.
A similar initiative has already been taken by River Valley Organizing, a local community organization, who just recently published a list of five demands after hosting a very vibrant town hall meeting in late February. This is a great step and should become the basis for a truly democratic campaign, with the active participation of the community. Such a campaign should without question be connected to the various court cases in process, as lawsuits will be a crucial part of making Norfolk Southern pay, but the legal process can often take years if not decades to resolve, with the damage already having been done in the community. And unfortunately, in many cases the courts decide in the interests of big business.
For such a campaign to be successful in making Norfolk Southern pay, it will be important that it is connected to the ongoing struggle of rail workers fighting against the exact unsafe practices that led to this derailment. The public anger at Norfolk Southern following this disaster has already forced them to concede to rail workers demands for additional sick days. These rail workers should link up with the community of East Palestine in a fight against Norfolk Southern’s recklessness.
Socialist Alternative and Workers Strike Back will do whatever we can to support this community in their fight.