Norfolk Southern disaster shows how corruption endangers Americans

When I posted about the East Palestine train derailment a little while back, I covered how the corruption that’s built into U.S. governance meant that the train in question was operating with a break system designed in the 1860s, despite far better designs being available. I also covered how they were deliberately under-staffing their trains to increase profits. Today we’re looking at a different layer of the problem, specifically the way safe levels of dangerous chemicals are decided. If you recall, the residents of East Palestine were told that their homes, land, and water were all safe – and assurance which they mostly seem to doubt, because they live in the U.S. and have at least some notion of that country’s history.

I doubt anyone reading this needs me to say it, but they were right to be suspicious.

One of the big concerns from the initial disclosure was that burning vinyl chloride would create, in addition to hydrochloride and the chemical weapon phosgene, something called dioxin. “Dioxin” generally refers to a group of environmentally persistent chemicals all sharing 1,4 Dioxin as a building block. The example of dioxin poisoning that’s probably best known to my fellow USians would be the use of the chemical weap- sorry, herbicide Agent Orange as part of the failed U.S. invasion of Vietnam. There were worries about this in early East Palestine coverage, but I didn’t really discuss it in my first post on the disaster, because I didn’t know how dioxins are created – by heating chlorine. That means that it would be physically impossible for a massive vinyl chloride fire to not create dioxins.

So, what’s the danger from dioxins? How much exposure is too much?

Well, back during the Obama administration, EPA scientists demonstrated that dioxins cause cancer, and recommended a cut of over 90% to what counts as a “safe” amount of the stuff in soil. Those cuts never went through, so instead of the scientist-backed proposal of 72 parts per trillion (ppt), it takes 1,000ppt or more in a residential area to get the federal government involved. I don’t currently have proof that corporate lobbying was involved, but at this point I think it’s wiser to assume corruption than goodwill, when it comes to the U.S. A number of states have put stricter standards in place, more in line with what the EPA had tried for, but Ohio was not one of them, so while federal and Ohio officials have said that dioxin levels are fine after the derailment, their definition of “fine” seems to include 700ppt:

Newly released data shows soil in the Ohio town of East Palestine – scene of a recent catastrophic train crash and chemical spill – contains dioxin levels hundreds of times greater than the exposure threshold above which Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists in 2010 found poses cancer risks.

The EPA at the time proposed lowering the cleanup threshold to reflect the science around the highly toxic chemical, but the Obama administration killed the rules, and the higher federal action threshold remains in place.

Though the dioxin levels in East Palestine are below the federal action threshold and an EPA administrator last week told Congress the levels were “very low”, chemical experts, including former EPA officials, who reviewed the data for the Guardian called them “concerning”.

The levels found in two soil samples are also up to 14 times higher than dioxin soil limits in some states, and the numbers point to wider contamination, said Linda Birnbaum, a former head of the US National Toxicology Program and EPA scientist.

“The levels are not screaming high, but we have confirmed that dioxins are in East Palestine’s soil,” she said. “The EPA must test the soil in the area more broadly.”

The data probably confirms fears that the controlled burn of vinyl chloride in the days after the train wreck in the town created dioxin and dispersed it throughout the area, experts say, though they stressed the new data is of limited value because only two soil samples were checked.

I stand by the title of my first post on the derailment – Norfolk Southern set off a weapon of mass destruction in East Palestine, Ohio, and the company is, of course, trying to escape any real responsibility or accountability. They’re claiming that they’re committed to taking care of the people whose town they gassed, but I wouldn’t trust corporate executives as far as my cat could throw throw them. I’ll believe they want to do right by their victims when they commit to paying all medical expenses for all of them, without first needing proof that the ailment is due to the derailment. They say they’ll set up a fund for medical expenses, but I would be shocked if accessing that money didn’t require sick people and their families to jump through all sorts of hoops before they can afford treatment.

Likewise, without a real cleanup effort, anyone new who moves to that area will be at risk, even ignoring people who might be put at risk by the company’s efforts to dispose of the chemical waste they’ve created. As was said at the time, this disaster will cause health problems for decades to come, if not longer, and without real change in regulatory and oversight agencies, people are going to keep being expose to this specific chemical spill. I’m specifying changes to government agencies, because I think expecting capitalists to do the right thing, absent a gun to their head, is foolish in the extreme. The EPA, for example, dragged its feet on testing for dioxins, despite the fact – as I laid out – that everyone who knew anything about this stuff knew that they were there. It apparently wasn’t until March 3rd that the EPA finally said that they would order Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins.

Why the fuck are they leaving testing in corporate hands? They should have been on the site testing everything, and subpoenaing every document even tangentially related to the contents of that train. They should have already started a cleanup, with the goal of doing a thorough job, and sending the bill to executives and shareholders. Likewise I think Norfolk Southern should have to pay the full value of every home there, plus moving costs for anyone wanting to leave, as a starting point.

And, of course, the top executives should on be on trial, facing real consequences including a prohibition on holding that kind of power ever again.

If someone were to ask me why I think we need to end capitalism, the hardest part of answering is that simply listing everything would take far, far too long. I think everyone already knew that this kind of murderous negligence was standard operating procedure for capitalists, but this disaster has once again made it clear that the millions they spend on corrupting the government have worked, and it takes weeks of pressure, and international attention to get the EPA to tell a big corporation to do the bare minimum, and test to see how badly they poisoned that town.

This whole situation is a disgrace, and it barely scratches the surface.

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  1. says

    Thanks for the link! That timeline is well made.

    After writing this post, I now wonder what dioxin levels are still there, based on what the EPA apparently considers “safe”…

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