Our Politicians Have Reliably Turned This Natural Disaster Into a Partisan Battle in Search of Human Blame
While we still await important environmental measurements about the effects of chemicals that leaked from that Ohio train derailment, it is the talk about the incident that has grown equally toxic.
As local fears continue about stinging air and contamination worries, our politicians have reliably turned this natural disaster into a partisan battle in search of human blame.
It’s significant that scientists are saying that “The East Palestine incident is not an environmental disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, the BP oil spill, or the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan — events that had very clear and devastating impacts on human health and wildlife,” as Vox News summarized. Initial testing by state and federal environmental agencies say the still diluting air is safe to breathe and regional water safe to drink, but residents complain about headaches and raise questions about dead animals.
There are building demands on the Norfolk Southern railroad to make more financial and safety commitments, and on federal officials to show up with money and solutions. Backed by Donald Trump and vocal congressional Republicans, the mayor went on Fox News to deride Joe Biden’s trip to Ukraine instead of his town, bringing the same money commitments for war to the restoration of normality in Ohio.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, himself the object of local ire, wants railroads to improve rail safety and is asking Congress to lift various obstacles in the way. There was another derailment in Nebraska of a train carrying coal. Buttigieg acknowledges that he could have been a better communicator through this disaster.
Then there was Tucker Carlson on Fox who saw the whole issue as part of a campaign against White, conservative America, and Donald Trump deciding to make the town a campaign stop — without acknowledging his own role in rolling back rail safety requirements.
And multiple lawsuits already have been launched, with the state of Ohio considering its own lawsuit to recoup costs of emergency response.
Environment Safety: Uncertain
The area’s environmental safety remains unclear. The initial tests are not detecting harmful levels of pollutants, including vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, and are seen as dissipating. Monitoring is continuing and more data is expected soon.
But the same officials acknowledge that the measurements are not good enough to track trace amounts of airborne chemicals. Nor is anyone sure about what levels of exposure are safe over the long term, or whether they leach into the soil faster than cleanup activities allow. There is not yet an exhaustive list of chemicals that may be in the air and water.
Generally, however well-intended the government response has been to the immediate emergency following the Feb. 3 derailment, the response to the continuing environmental fallout is seen as slow and inadequate. Whatever inter-agency or business and government cooperation was immediately evident is giving way to partisanship.
Just this week, federal officials opened health clinics, but rather than offering actual health testing of residents’ health complaints, they turned out to offer health referrals and information. And Buttigieg announced he would be visiting the town today. Residents of the town also want the Norfolk Southern CEO to meet with them.
Are There Solutions?
Buttigieg and EPA Administrator Michael Regan say they are taking steps to impose stronger regulations on freight trains hauling toxic chemicals and on forcing the company to underwrite a full cleanup. But some actions will require Congress to enable the changes.
The transportation secretary accused the rail industry of “vigorous resistance” to increased safety measures, thwarting efforts to strengthen tank cars and mandate a better braking system on trains that carry volatile fuels, chemicals and other toxic substances.
Buttigieg — and Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine — say rail companies should speed addition of sturdier, more puncture-resistant tank cars that carry volatile or toxic substances. The DOT mandated the new tank cars be in use and older, weaker ones to be phased out by 2025.
But during the Donald Trump administration, Congress delayed that new tank car deadline until 2029 under the general banner of eliminating costly business regulation. Buttigieg also wants bigger fines and better definition of what constitutes a “high hazard flammable train.”
DeWine wants the railroads to notify communities along its routes about the contents being carried. There was no such communication here, nor any requirement to do so.
Nationally, Republicans have called Buttigieg’s response to the disaster lacking, and joined in demeaning him for not showing up in town. He says he is allowing the National Transportation Safety Board more fully investigate the details first. Fox and other right-leaning news sites are running prominent criticisms of Buttigieg by name.
For sure, toxic politics are not helping the clear the air.