Environmental threats bigger than a train derailment
One of the curiosities to rise out of the Norfolk Southern train derailment that spilled toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, and caused a dayslong fire, has been the outcry from Republican opinion leaders. High-profile conservatives — from U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — have questioned whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation and President Joe Biden have done enough to help Upper Ohio Valley residents and protect other U.S. communities from similar disasters. Given the party’s usual disdain for environmental causes, the not-so-subtle messaging has been pretty amazing: A large corporation is under-regulated, the federal government needs to be more aggressive with polluters, and Americans must be wary of toxic chemicals and their transport.
To all of that, we can only add: Right on.
Granted, it’s easy to be cynical and recognize hypocrisy here. It’s entirely possible that some in the Grand Old Party are not newly converted to environmental causes, but rather have simply looked at the 2024 electoral map and recognized that Ohio and Pennsylvania are crucial swing states. They want to make a lot of noise now, knowing that it won’t amount to much on do-nothing Capitol Hill. But let’s take them at their word. If Republicans want to see serious action taken against Norfolk Southern, that’s fine. But it’s only a start.
What is needed is for federal protections to be toughened to prevent future disasters. What good is a cleanup if Ohio, Pennsylvania and every other state remains vulnerable? And that goes beyond trains, accidents or even large-scale events. Serious threats to our land, air and water don’t always happen overnight. Sometimes, they are more subtle than that — the drip, drip, drip (or puff, puff, puff) of leaks from landfills or abandoned industrial sites or, dare we say, greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global climate change.
Step one: Mandate railroads install better brakes. Electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, or ECP brakes, could have made a big difference in the Ohio derailment instead of the century-old technology currently in use. And put a stop to the freight railroad cost cutting, too. The relentless effort to pare down prices have made trains longer and crews smaller. Train derailments are hardly extraordinary as the U.S. averages about 1,700 a year, but then hazardous materials spills aren’t all that unique either. Truck crashes involving toxics are more common than trains — and more likely to involve fatalities and take place in vulnerable urban areas like Baltimore. Since 2000, truck crashes have caused three times as much property damage as their rail counterparts, according to federal statistics.
Step two: Get serious about safe drinking water. Over and over again, it’s fear of what’s happened to the water that plagues people living in or near East Palestine, particularly given they rely on backyard wells and can see dead fish in local creeks. Small wonder. U.S. drinking water may be regarded as among the world’s safest, but the onslaught of contamination has had an impact. And it’s not just in Flint, Michigan. From bacteria to lead, from nitrates to arsenic and other contaminants, there is reason to question whether health authorities have done an adequate job protecting the water supply. Polluting runoff from streets and farm fields is a more common problem than trains, as anyone associated with the Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts can tell you.
Step three: How about adequately funding regulators? The EPA, for example, has suffered years of stagnant budgets and cuts. If Republicans in Congress wonder why the agency hasn’t been more aggressive, they need only look at themselves. Superfund hazardous material sites, hundreds of them, go neglected because there isn’t the money to clean them up. It’s within the power of Congress to change that, not next year or the year after, but right now. Will they? Or will Republicans revert to their old ways once their favorite cable TV cameras point somewhere other than eastern Ohio and the remnants of a not-that-unusual train wreck?