The past is present. This is a theme that comes up pretty often on this blog, and it’s one that I believe applies to a lot of the problems we face as a species. The most common topic to which I apply it is probably white supremacy, but it also applies to the development of capitalism from feudalism, patriarchy, the lasting impact of the first Cold War both around the world and within the U.S., and even the century-old labor law that allowed Joe Biden and Congress to intervene on behalf of rail corporations to force workers to take a deal they didn’t want. If you recall, that 2022 labor dispute was about whether rail workers have a right to sick leave. Not paid sick leave, but any sick leave that they wouldn’t be actively punished for taking. The government could have weighed in to force the rail companies to treat their workers like actual people, but they opted for the opposite.
The lack of sick leave was compounded as a problem because rail companies in the United States have spent the last few years firing as many people as they possibly could, while simultaneously adding more and more cars to the trains. The result of that was longer trains carrying more material, with fewer people to actually drive the train, and to make sure that these massive machines were being operated safely. Requiring them to allow their workers to take time off when sick, even unpaid time off, would require them to hire more workers, which goes against their current business plan.
See, if you hire more workers, you have to pay more workers, and that means you have less money with which to inflate your stock prices (and so the personal wealth of executives and other shareholders) through stock buybacks.
Norfolk Southern Corporation (NSC) Tuesday announced that its Board of Directors has authorized a new program for the repurchase of up to $10 billion of its common stock beginning April 1, 2022.
The company’s current program will be terminated on March 31, 2022.
The company said purchases will be made through open market transactions, privately negotiated transactions, accelerated share repurchase programs, or by combinations of such methods.
The new program, which has no expiration date, may be modified or terminated at any time. The timing and volume of any repurchases will be guided by management’s assessment of market conditions and other factors.
That’s important to bear in mind going forward. As you read about the damage done, the corners cut, the deliberately unsafe conditions, remember that all of that was in service to further enriching a small number of people who are already obscenely rich. Lives lost due to this disaster are lives taken, in exchange for money, whether from the accident itself, or from cancer years down the line.
Unfortunately, on the theme of “past is present”, the law from 1936 isn’t the worst part. See, most trains in the U.S. still use a braking system from the 1860s. It’s an ingenious design, to be sure. It uses air pressure to create a chain reaction that runs down the train. The brakes at the front trigger the brakes in the next car back, which trigger the next car, and so on, till you reach the back of the train. In the case of the train that derailed in East Palestine, OH on Thursday, February 3rd, that process was 150 cars and 1.8 miles long. What that means is that the front of the train began to stop long, long before the back of the train. It means it takes a long time to actually stop, but it also means that if any car even thinks about derailing, there’s a huge amount of compression happening to make the train fold up like an accordion.
There is an electronic braking technology that causes every car to brake simultaneously – something that would have seriously mitigated this disaster – but the rail companies lobbied hard to keep their 150 year old brake systems, because replacing them all would have cost them…
Then came 2017: After rail industry donors delivered more than $6 million to GOP campaigns, the Trump administration — backed by rail lobbyists and Senate Republicans — rescinded part of that rule aimed at making better braking systems widespread on the nation’s rails.
Specifically, regulators killed provisions requiring rail cars carrying hazardous flammable materials to be equipped with electronic braking systems to stop trains more quickly than conventional air brakes. Norfolk Southern had previously touted the new technology — known as Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes — for its “potential to reduce train stopping distances by as much as 60 percent over conventional air brake systems.”
But the company’s lobby group nonetheless pressed for the rule’s repeal, telling regulators that it would “impose tremendous costs without providing offsetting safety benefits.”
That argument won out with Trump officials — and the Biden administration has not moved to reinstate the brake rule or expand the kinds of trains subjected to tougher safety regulations.
“Would ECP brakes have reduced the severity of this accident? Yes,” Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), told The Lever. “The railroads will test new features. But once they are told they have to do it… they don’t want to spend the money.”
While the Obama administration had estimated that the rule could save more than $1 billion by averting accidents, the Trump administration rolled out new figures that cut the estimated benefits by a third.
The AAR lobbying group concurred that “the costs of the ECP rule substantially outweigh its benefits,” and claimed the mandate would cost them about $3 billion — or roughly 2 weeks of their operating revenue in a typical year. The FRA estimated the brake requirement would cost about half a billion.
Trump’s Transportation Department ultimately rescinded the brake rule in late 2017.
Remember the stock buyback? $10 billion just to inflate the value of their stocks? This is where some of that money came from. That’s $3 billion for all the companies represented buy the lobbying group mentioned above, by the way. Norfolk Southern’s share of that would have been less. They chose this path, knowing that it would lead to incidents like this, as it had done already. They had the money, they just wanted it for themselves, and the government said, “yeah, that’s fair”. It seems money was the primary consideration for the corporations and for the Obama administration, at least when it came to their negotiation.
When people talk about capitalism and socialism, the default is to frame things in terms of “the means of production” – who owns the stuff you need to make stuff? Under capitalism, it’s owned by capitalists, and so the vital machinery of society can only be used by society if it further enriches those who own that machinery. Under socialism, it’s owned by the workers – the people who actually use the machinery. Another way to think about it is that under capitalism, the government serves capital by default – that small class of people at the top – and under socialism, the government serves the working class by default. It’s an over-simplification, and obviously different people have different notions of what it actually means for a government to “serve the working class” or whether that’s even possible, but I think you get the gist.
We live under capitalism, and our governments serve those at the top, by default. That means that when there’s a dispute between capital and labor, the government sides with capital, unless there’s a large, well-coordinated effort to push back. They send in cops to break up protests. They manipulate the economy to make people more desperate. They use the law to take deny workers the right to say no. They accept the transparently dishonest arguments against safety legislation.
And then, when something like this happens, as it always does, it’s the people who bear most of the cost by default. There are lawsuits, of course, and I’m certain more will follow, but really think about what that means. The default process, if a corporation sets off a weapon of mass destruction in your town, is that you have to sue them before you get any recompense, or really any meaningful help. They have a well-funded legal department. What do you have?
Remember, the government was telling people they could return to their homes days before we even knew everything that was in the derailed cars. They did that knowing that one of the products of their “controlled” release and burn was phosgene – a gas made famous for its use as a chemical weapon in World War 1. It was specifically used to clear out trenches, because it’s heavier than air, and so flows along the ground, and pools in low places.
Like basements, for example. Which were not tested prior to telling people they could go home, as far as I can find out.
In addition to getting their way on brake safety, the rail companies also got their way on the classification of hazardous materials. From earlier in the same Lever article I quoted above:
Though the company’s 150-car train in Ohio reportedly burst into 100-foot flames upon derailing — and was transporting materials that triggered a fireball when they were released and incinerated — it was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train,” federal officials told The Lever.
Documents show that when current transportation safety rules were first created, a federal agency sided with industry lobbyists and limited regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds. The decision effectively exempted many trains hauling dangerous materials — including the one in Ohio — from the “high-hazard” classification and its more stringent safety requirements.
Amid the lobbying blitz against stronger transportation safety regulations, Norfolk Southern paid executives millions and spent billions on stock buybacks — all while the company shed thousands of employees despite warnings that understaffing is intensifying safety risks. Norfolk Southern officials also fought off a shareholder initiative that could have required company executives to “assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation.”
The sequence of events began a decade ago in the wake of a major uptick in derailments of trains carrying crude oil and hazardous chemicals, including a New Jersey train crash that leaked the same toxic chemical as in Ohio.
In response, the Obama administration in 2014 proposed improving safety regulations for trains carrying petroleum and other hazardous materials. However, after industry pressure, the final measure ended up narrowly focused on the transport of crude oil and exempting trains carrying many other combustible materials, including the chemical involved in this weekend’s disaster.
When I first started working on this article, the only chemical we were sure was involved was vinyl chloride. They were concerned that the tanker cars would explode with a lethal shrapnel radius of about a mile, so they decided to do a controlled release and burn, by setting small charges on the tankers, to blow small holes and let the vinyl chloride gas out to burn off.
The primary products of that fire would have been phosgene, as I mentioned, and hydrogen chloride, which almost certainly bonded with water in the atmosphere to fall back down as hydrochloric acid – acid rain. This did what it always does – it reacted with aluminum in any clay soil it encountered, inflamed the gills of any fish in the water it flowed into, and has killed an estimated 3,500 fish as of yesterday. Basically, acid rain is like a gas weapon but for fish, so when they gassed the town, they were nice enough to bring something for the watershed as well.
Of course, while that’s the most likely chain of events, the reality is that vinyl chloride was only on 5 out of 50 derailed cars. What’s on the other ones? Well, was strangely difficult to find out. It was about 24 hours before the vinyl chloride’s presence was confirmed, but it was days before got a list of what was in the other cars.
Among the substances were ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene were also in the rail cars that were derailed, the list shows.
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.
Personally, I feel as though a company able to spend billions on stock buybacks ought to be able to have that information more or less instantly, but what do I know? I was foolish enough to assume that train brakes had been updated since the Civil War.
The current official line is that there’s little chance of anyone coming into contact with the worst stuff at this point, but I’m far from alone in doubting that. The infuriating reality of the way our society works, is that people will have to prove – some probably with their lives – that there was lasting contamination. These people will have to suffer through years or even decades of disease and medical bills to get recompense. They may get a big payout – I certainly hope they do – but that won’t give them back the time they lost in the process.
I’m sorry if it’s annoying for me to keep harping on this, but I want to say again that the actions proposed to prevent disasters like this – an end to understaffing and new brakes – wouldn’t even have made the company unprofitable. It would have just made them slightly less profitable, and for that they were willing to sacrifice thousands of people.
Of course they were. That sacrifice is the engine that drives global capitalism. It’s carried out every day, all over the world. Whether it’s the people being poisoned by electronic waste, or the people poisoned by fossil fuel extraction, or the people poisoned by contaminated water supplies, or the people poisoned by the local mine, or the local factory, the sacrifice is carried out everywhere and every day. Hell, we’ve even got a nice, formal term for those places where the poor and powerless are fed to the corporate machine – sacrifice zones.
A sacrifice zone or sacrifice area (also a national sacrifice zone or national sacrifice area) is a geographic area that has been permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment. They are places damaged through locally unwanted land use (LULU) causing “chemical pollution where residents live immediately adjacent to heavily polluted industries or military bases.”
One definition, by an English teacher at the International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, New York, was: “A sacrifice zone is when there is no choice in the sacrifice. Someone else is sacrificing people and their community or land without their permission.” In collaboration with the students, a more sophisticated definition was produced: “In the name of progress (economic development, education, religion, factories, technology) certain groups of people (called inferior) may need to be harmed or sacrificed in order for the other groups (the superior ones) to benefit.”
Traditionally, sacrifice zones are fixed locations. The communities around mines, oil fields, factories, and dumps are where most of this happens. The U.S. rail industry has created what amounts to a sacrifice zone “lottery”. The odds of your town getting hit by a bomb train are low, but eventually someone will have the “winning” ticket. It was never a question of whether this would happen, but of when.
That’s why I think it’s appropriate to think of this as an attack carried out for money.
There was no question that this was going to happen. It had already been happening, and yet the United States Government was so pathetically weak before the corporations, that it couldn’t even require and update to braking systems from the 1800s. This is reminiscent of how all of humanity was poisoned by industrial and commercial use of lead, and new poisonings keep happening to this day, even though we’ve known about the danger for literal centuries. As I said yesterday, the more I hear about this, the worse it gets, and I’m not convinced we have all the information that we need, even now. We don’t yet know what the long-term effects of this will be, but it’s fair to assume that they will manifest, and that Norfolk Southern will use their vast, ill-gotten wealth to avoid accountability.
Personally, I think that Norfolk Southern should be nationalized, without compensation to shareholders. They’ve demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to handle the responsibilities of managing a rail company. They made a clear and conscious choice to sacrifice other people for personal gain. If someone like Osama bin Laden had arranged for this to happen deliberately, most of my fellow USians would be calling for the death penalty for everyone involve. Some would be calling for torture. While I don’t believe either should be on the table for anything, I can think of no reason why this crime of malicious, greedy negligence should be treated as any less evil, just because the motivating philosophy was capitalism.
If you live anywhere near East Palestine, get a full checkup if you can afford it. Having those data can help make the case later on that an illness was caused by this disaster. Likewise, don’t sign or agree to anything from Norfolk Southern without talking to a lawyer, and ideally other people in the same position as you – they will probably try to get people to sign away their right to sue. I very much hope I’m wrong, but I fear that this accident will be shaping people’s lives for decades to come, and I fear it won’t be the last.
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