GUEST COMMENTARY - Progressives are demanding that U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg improve rail safety regulations in response to the unfolding public health disaster in East Palestine, Ohio—the site of a recent fiery train crash and subsequent "controlled release" of toxic fumes that critics say was entirely avoidable.
"The Obama administration attempted to prevent dangerous derailments like the one in East Palestine by mandating better brake systems on freight trains," Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, said Tuesday in a statement. "But this effort was watered down thanks to corporate pressure, first by writing in many exemptions to the proposed rules and then, under [former President Donald] Trump, by repealing the requirement altogether."
Recent reporting from The Lever revealed that Buttigieg's Department of Transportation (DOT) "has no intention of reinstating or strengthening the brake rule rescinded under Trump," said Hauser. "Additionally, The Lever reports that the train was not being regulated as a high-hazard flammable train, despite it clearly being both high-hazard and flammable. These types of failures to protect the public are invited by perpetual lax enforcement and laziness toward even getting back to the too-low regulatory standards under Obama."
"Now, all eyes are on Secretary Buttigieg," he continued. "For too long he has been content to continue the legacy of his deregulatory predecessor, Elaine Chao, rather than immediately moving to reverse her legacy upon becoming secretary."
"Norfolk Southern's environmental disaster is the latest in a long string of corporate malfeasance committed right under the secretary's nose," Hauser observed, referring to the company that owns the derailed train. "As I've warned before, corporations do not respect Buttigieg as a regulator."
"Norfolk Southern's environmental disaster is the latest in a long string of corporate malfeasance committed right under the secretary's nose... Corporations do not respect Buttigieg as a regulator."
Noting that "Chao justified letting trains run without proper brakes because the safety requirement failed a so-called cost-benefit analysis," Hauser cautioned that "this type of analysis is invariably weighted against fully accounting for the health and environmental benefits a regulation provides."
"Buttigieg should call out the brake rule repeal for the horrendous decision it was, start working to implement a new rule, take Norfolk Southern to task, and push back on corporations deciding how the DOT regulates them," he added. "Anything short of that only signals to the railroads that this type of incident will be tolerated."
Hauser was joined Tuesday by environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who tweeted, "The Biden administration needs to get more involved in this... train derailment now."
"We are counting on you to break the chain of administration after administration to turn a blind eye," she added. "STEP UP NOW."
After Buttigieg made his first public statement on the East Palestine disaster on Monday night—10 days after dozens of train cars careened off the tracks and burst into flames—The Lever's David Sirota issued a reminder that the transportation secretary is actively considering an industry-backed proposal to further weaken the regulation of train braking systems.
Sirota also urged people to sign his outlet's open letter imploring Buttigieg "to rectify the multiple regulatory failures that preceded this horrific situation," including by exercising his authority to restore the rail safety rules gutted by Trump at the behest of industry lobbyists.
Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) wrote Monday night on social media that the freight train crash and ensuing chemical release "will have a significant negative impact on the health and well-being of the residents for decades."
"We need [a] congressional inquiry and direct action from Pete Buttigieg to address this tragedy," added the progressive lawmaker.
Following the February 3 derailment of a 150-car train carrying hazardous materials—described by an inter-union alliance of rail workers as the predictable result of Wall Street-backed policies that prioritize profits over safety—officials ordered emergency evacuations before releasing chemicals into a trench and burning them off to prevent a catastrophic explosion.
It was already known that vinyl chloride, of particular concern to state health officials because exposure to the volatile gas is associated with higher cancer risks, had been released from several cars, and that other dangerous toxins such as phosgene and hydrogen chloride were emitted in large plumes of smoke.
However, citing a list of the derailed car contents that Norfolk Southern provided to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ABC News reported Monday night that several more toxic substances were released into the air and soil following the crash than originally thought, including ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene.
As the outlet noted:
Contact with ethylhexyl acrylate, a carcinogen, can cause burning and irritation of the skin and eyes, and inhalation can irritate the nose and throat, causing shortness of breath and coughing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Inhalation of isobutylene can cause dizziness and drowsiness as well, while exposure to ethylene glycol monobutyl ether can caused irritation in the eyes, skin, nose, and throat, as well as hematuria, or blood in the urine, nervous system depression, headache, and vomiting, according to the CDC.
The U.S. EPA said Monday night that it "has not yet detected any concerning levels of toxins in the air quality that can be attributed to the crash since the controlled burn was complete," ABC News reported. The agency continues to screen individual homes in close proximity to the site.
Meanwhile, The Independent reported Tuesday that the Ohio EPA has confirmed the presence of chemicals, including butyl acrylate, in the Ohio River basin, potentially affecting up to 25 million people.
"Rather than spending money to upgrade safety and staffing, Norfolk Southern engaged in stock buybacks and laid off employees... There must be accountability."
Contaminants reached the river from an initial spill caused by the derailment, but officials said they "were in low enough level that the river diluted them and said that downriver communities would not be at risk," the outlet reported. The state agency "has been monitoring water quality throughout the region and has not found contaminant levels at any levels they've deemed concerning."
Nevertheless, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has revealed that at least 3,500 fish have died in Columbiana County, home to East Palestine, since the derailment.
As the full ecological fallout of the disaster continues to come into view, many of East Palestine's roughly 4,700 residents fear that the air and water in the rural town they have been told is safe to return to remains hazardous to their health. At least 2,000 residents have returned, however, due in large part to a lack of viable alternatives owing to their limited resources and incomes.
Norfolk Southern, which reported record-breaking operating revenues of $12.7 billion in 2022, has offered to donate just $25,000 to help affected residents, amounting to roughly $5 per person.
The corporation announced a $10 billion stock buyback program last March and has consistently increased its dividend, rewarding shareholders while refusing to provide its workers with basic benefits such as paid sick leave.
"Rather than spending money to upgrade safety and staffing, Norfolk Southern engaged in stock buybacks and laid off employees," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) tweeted Tuesday. "Union workers were ignored. The train went up in flames and toxic chemicals are causing a colossal environmental catastrophe. There must be accountability."
(Kenny Stancil is a staff writer for CommonDreams.org where this article was first published.)