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JACKSON: Derailment Should Not Be an Opportunity for Political Grandstanding

Fortunately, there were no fatalities in the East Palestine, Ohio, freight train derailment, but there is plenty of legitimate concern regarding the environmental and human health consequences it caused. Unfortunately, instead of finding ways to help the people of East Palestine and proposing rational, common-sense steps forward, political discourse continues to be brutally murdered by interests that have only raw partisan advantage in mind.

Long after a wreck released more than 100,000 gallons of toxic materials, forced an evacuation of residents, and contaminated nearby soil and water, the White House made a bold statement that was an obvious effort to divert attention away from the benign neglect it initially exhibited.

“Congressional Republicans and former Trump administration officials owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled Obama-Biden rail safety protections as well as EPA powers to rapidly contain spills,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates.

Those same congressional Republicans also “laid the groundwork for the Trump administration to tear up requirements for more effective train brakes,” Bates continued. “Last year,” he ranted, “most House Republicans wanted to defund our ability to protect drinking water.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, so late arriving at the scene of the Norfolk Southern accident that he might as well not have bothered to go, has also used the victims of the Ohio village of 4,800 as props. While families were trying to restore their lives, Buttigieg didn’t let the crisis go to waste. He insisted that federal regulation should require at least two crew members aboard each train cab, and called for the industry to provide paid sick leave for all employees, claiming it would make rail travel safer. According to NPR, Buttigieg also mentioned that Washington should “mandate a better braking system on trains that carry volatile fuels, chemicals and other toxic substances.”

Interestingly, none of these proposals are related to the East Palestine derailment.

First, a three-member crew was aboard the train that derailed. That’s one more than the Federal Railroad Administration wants to require and two more than is necessary for safe travel. Single-person crews are typical in Europe and Australia, and they are no less safe than the rail lines in the United States, where multiple-person crews operate.

Consulting firm Oliver Wyman has determined that the European “countries with the best safety records (least fatalities and weighted serious injuries per million train-kilometers) are all countries where railroads operate with single-person crews.”

The problem for Biden, Buttigieg and their allies is that rail travel has been made safer by Positive Train Control systems, which have been in operation for about two years over nearly all of the 58,000 miles of freight and passenger rail routes that cross this country. The development of PTCs means that trains don’t need an additional crew member whose role is redundant.

Buttigieg’s insistence that rail companies provide paid sick leave to all employees has no connection to the East Palestine derailment. No one has claimed it was caused by workers too ill to do their jobs. Nor is there any evidence that ailing crews were responsible. But, of course, extending paid sick leave to workers is a major labor union objective. Is Buttigieg, a federal official, negotiating publicly, yet stealthily, on behalf of those unions, which were willing to shut down freight-rail service last fall over their demand for paid sick leave?

The transportation secretary also used the incident to advance his pro-union agenda to “modernize braking regulations and increase the use of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes,” particularly electronically controlled pneumatic, or ECP, brakes.

Again, Buttigieg is exploiting the crash to further a political agenda. National Transportation Safety Board Chairperson Jennifer Homendy made this clear when she tweeted that even if the ECP brake rule had been implemented, it would not have prevented the Norfolk Southern train from leaving the tracks.

According to Homendy’s tweet, “The ECP braking rule would’ve applied ONLY to HIGH HAZARD FLAMMABLE TRAINS. The train that derailed in East Palestine was a MIXED FREIGHT TRAIN containing only 3 placarded Class 3 flammable liquids cars.”

Other items from Buttigieg’s list are just as disconnected from the East Palestine disaster as those mentioned above.

While most of us see a tragedy that will continue to unfold for years, if not decades, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and one-time presidential primary candidate sees political opportunity. He still wants to be president, and a train wreck that he seemed to care little about initially became a moment in which he could burnish his progressive creds and shore up support from organized labor. 

Unfortunately for East Palestine, Ohio, the town is his springboard for a future campaign.

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PA Senate Committee Demands Answers on East Palestine Derailment

Pennsylvania state senators hammered Norfolk Southern Railway’s chef executive Monday over his company’s recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It also affected Pennsylvania residents just across the state line.

The Senate Veteran’s Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, chaired by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) and Sen. Katie Muth (D-Berks/Chester/Montgomery), asked Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw a battery of questions about the decision for a controlled burn of rail cars that carried toxic chemicals at the East Palestine derailment site.

“Who specifically in unified command said to do this?” Mastriano asked. “You’re blaming it on the fire chief in East Palestine. Your cars are on fire, it’s your railroad, and you’re going to leave it to the local fire chief who never had to deal with such a catastrophe before? Who said, ‘We’re going to this’?”

Shaw said the decision was made by “unified command” and that “ultimately, the decision falls on the incident commander under consultation with unified command.”

Sen. Tracy Pennycuick (R-Bucks/Montgomery) claimed the committee was “kind of glossing over” the seriousness of the situation in East Palestine just after the derailment.

“I personally think that the fire chief did the right thing,” she argued. “I’ve seen a helicopter explode, and I’ve seen the injuries when we didn’t do a controlled burn and let the fuel out.”

“I’m just trying to see if you can paint a picture for us of what that might have looked like if you had not done a controlled burn,” she said, calling it “important that we all understand what it would have looked like because I think (that) would have been catastrophic in life and property.”

Shaw responded that “the very real concern” at the time “was there would have been an uncontrolled, catastrophic explosion which would have shot vinyl chloride gas which, as you know, is denser than air, throughout the community along with shrapnel.

“So, all the relevant parties got together and modeled the dispersion, the government authorities modeled the dispersion with inputs from a number of sources,” he said.

Shaw added post-burn testing in the area indicated that “it was a success. It worked.” He said Norfolk Southern would compensate residents and businesses for their losses and reimburse them for medical care.

Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University, argued before the committee that the EPA and state agencies are not testing for all the toxic chemicals that might have been released in the incident.

Whelton, who has been studying soil, water, and air samples of the area with a team of volunteer researchers, said if a test is not done for certain cancer-causing chemicals, investigators won’t find them.

“The numbers don’t matter,” he said. “It matters what you test for.”

Mastriano, at one point, claimed that when he visited the site with his staff, their upper respiratory tracts burned and they developed rashes. Residents have told him about various health problems stemming from the wreck, he said.

The committee also heard briefly from railroad accident investigator Robert Comer, who said the railcars that carried the toxic chemicals did not belong to Norfolk Southern but to private companies. He speculated as to whether the railroad had checked those cars for problems before it added them to the train.

A bearing that caught fire is being blamed preliminarily for the derailment. Previously, the National Transportation Safety Board said the train continued running with an overheated bearing for 20 miles before it derailed, despite warning indicators.

Comer said poor track conditions with old, wooden railroad ties could also have played a role in the accident.

Shaw promised to help the residents and clean up the area affected by the derailment.

“I am determined to make this right,” said Shaw. “Norfolk Southern is determined to clean the site safely. We’ll get the job done and help these communities thrive.”

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Counterpoint: The War on Woke Is a Scam on Middle America

For an alternate viewpoint, see: Point: To Be Woke Is to Be MAGA

Buckle up, team: I’m a White man from the Midwest with a story to tell about wokeness.

I live in an Ohio railroad town. Locals hear trains calling through the night, wait them out at crossings, and photograph them trundling along the river past the old mill downtown. But as our neighbors two counties over in East Palestine know, those cars don’t just carry freight or Old World charm — they also bring danger.

While we refreshed local EPA reports in the days after the Norfolk Southern derailment, I wondered who’d get blamed for it. There was no shortage of options.

Norfolk Southern skimped on maintenance, overstretched its workers, and used the profits to hike its stock price.

Ohio’s governor and the local congressman accepted thousands from the company while the statehouse dutifully killed a bipartisan rail safety bill the company lobbied against. Former president Donald Trump, who showed up after the crash to promote his bottled water brand, had killed an Obama-era regulation to prevent accidents like these.

But on the MAGA circuit, none of these were to blame.

Instead, as the Ohio Capital Journal’s Marilou Johanek put it, we got “opportunists exploiting East Palestine’s suffering population with politics and race-baiting.” In this telling, it wasn’t corporate or government corruption that caused the suffering in East Palestine. It was “wokeness.”

Fox host Tucker Carlson proclaimed that East Palestine was affected because it “is overwhelmingly White, and it’s politically conservative.” As writer Greg Sargent summarized, Carlson alleged the administration would have cared more “if the accident had happened in Philadelphia or Detroit — wink, wink.”

“If this train derailment happened in downtown Atlanta in the densely populated Black neighborhoods,” agreed far-right activist Charlie Kirk, “this would be the number-one news story.” The millionaire talk show host insisted that our leaders “hate working-class Whites,” and, in fact, there’s a whole “crusade against White people.”

Fox talking head Jesse Waters played a similar note, asking this about Michael Regan, President Biden’s Black EPA administrator: “Is this his idea of fighting environmental racism? Spilling toxic chemicals on poor White people in Ohio?

Donald Trump Jr., for his part, denigrated Treasury Secretary Pete Buttigieg as “the gay guy.”

This is the “war on woke” sham in a nutshell.

Well-heeled politicians and millionaire MAGA media figures tell poor Whites to blame Black people, LGBTQ people, and vague liberal ideas for troubles any sensible person would blame on a greedy corporation and the bought-off politicians — from the GOP-run Ohio statehouse on up to the White House — who enabled it.

Even while lambasting President Biden, they had little to say about his bad decision to snub the railroad unions, perhaps because most Republicans — many flush with railroad cash — supported that, too. The only beneficiaries are the bad actors who poisoned the poor Ohio community these pundits claim to represent from their perches in New York or Washington.

They play the same game all over.

Right-wing politicians rail against “woke corporations” only to collect corporate campaign cashpush corporate tax cuts, and oppose minimum wage hikes, sick leave, and union organizing. They ban books about race and viciously attack LGBTQ kids to protect education while systematically underfunding schools.

A self-described “anti-woke budget” drafted by former Trump officials would cut the “woke” Environmental Protection Agency by 30 percent. What a gift to East Palestine, where the EPA is doing emergency cleanup operations.

This hateful, fact-free rhetoric is doing incredible damage.

It spreads cruel and dangerous anti-LGBTQ laws. It’s gutting classroom libraries. It’s led to absurd conspiracy theories, an emboldened and violent White supremacist fringe, and the January 6 coup attempt. It divides urban and rural communities of every race and color who might otherwise work together against influential people who do them wrong.

In court, a lawyer for Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida recently defined “woke” as the “general belief in systemic injustices in the country.” Ask yourself: Why would a powerful politician want to banish that belief?

Instead, the MAGA bargain for Middle America goes something like this: If we hurt other people worse, is it OK if we hurt you, too?

Sorry, but I guess this White Ohioan would rather be woke.

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