The East Palestine disaster could happen anywhere in Pennsylvania | Opinion

This was no unexpected event or unpredictable tragedy. It was a ticking time bomb

Photo of the East Palestine train derailment from the U.S. EPA.

By Joseph Otis Minott

The fallout from the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, continues to spread, with each week bringing new reports of threats, specifically to nearby residents’ health as well as to the surrounding environment.

These developments bring us closer to a chilling conclusion – this was no unexpected event or unpredictable tragedy. It was a ticking time bomb that rail operators and state and federal regulators were woefully unprepared to prevent or properly respond to – yet which they all knew could happen.

The reality is, there are other ticking time bombs not too unlike a freight train carrying toxic petrochemicals that are present throughout Pennsylvania and the nation.

From the Shell Polymers Monaca petrochemical plant in Beaver County to the rail corridor along the Lower Delaware between Marcus Hook and Philadelphia, the infrastructure and operations of hazardous industries touch countless, often marginalized Pennsylvania neighborhoods.

The companies behind them operate with too little transparency or government oversight and with a complete disregard for public safety and environmental protections. Another East Palestine disaster could happen again, at any time, unless we start holding those organizations and their leaders accountable and demanding better enforcement and disaster response from regulators.

Norfolk Southern has a documented history of accidents and safety issues – as do most large rail operators. Its policies specifically allow employees to disregard safety protocols and are part of an industry-wide pursuit of growth and profits over safety. Norfolk Southern needs to be held accountable for these issues as well as its failing response in the minutes, days, and weeks following the derailment.

Gov. Josh Shapiro, along with lawmakers in Harrisburg, have taken important steps to do just that. Shapiro’s charges of “arrogance and incompetence” are right, and Norfolk Southern and its executives should face harsh consequences for their actions – including those they failed to take.

Shapiro says Norfolk Southern’s response to East Palestine derailment and fire put first responders and residents at ‘significant risk’

His criminal referral to the state attorney general and efforts to ensure Norfolk Southern fairly compensates all groups involved in cleanup efforts are the exact kind of actions that are needed.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw was called to testify before Congress, where he promised thorough cleanup efforts. It’s a promise that flies in the face of his organization’s subpar efforts to date, which included failing to coordinate with government officials, providing inaccurate information about the controlled release of chemicals, and failing to consider alternatives to burning off the toxic vinyl chloride.

Norfolk Southern and its decisionmakers must be held accountable – publicly and legally. But the failures in East Palestine don’t end with industry.

Throughout the response process, both the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) and the U.S. EPA have failed to execute a cohesive response plan. That includes keeping residents fully informed and safe (and feeling safe) and forcing Norfolk Southern to take the right actions to ensure those same goals.

Norfolk Southern CEO apologizes for Ohio crash, but won’t back bipartisan rail safety bill

The residents of East Palestine and communities downwind deserve to know if it’s safe to stay in their homes. They deserve to have complete and accurate testing of the air, soil, and water in their communities.

They deserve to be relocated — on Norfolk Southern’s dime — if they fear for the safety of their families. They deserve a thorough and effective emergency response and cleanup effort with an unwavering focus on both their short- and long-term health.

Pa. Senate committee votes to subpoena Norfolk Southern CEO

Ultimately, people deserve to feel safe in their homes and their communities. They deserve to live in a society that prioritizes their safety over cheap single-use plastics–which is where much of the vinyl chloride like that spilling from the Norfolk Southern cars ends up. They deserve to live without the anxiety that comes from chemical poisoning and all the unknowns that surround it. Yet this tragedy reinforces a sad reality. The dangers of petrochemicals extend to every step in their creation. The way they are produced, transported, used, and disposed of harms people and the planet.

We have a long way to go. The newly operational Shell ethane cracker plant, a stone’s throw southeast of East Palestine, is already exceeding annual permit limits of dangerous pollutants and volatile organic compounds.

The company has been slow to keep nearby residents informed of odors and excessive noise. If that’s just part of daily operations, what can we expect if an unexpected disaster were to occur there or at another location in Pennsylvania?

The only remotely positive development that could come out of the devastating tragedy in East Palestine would be for regulators and industry to apply lessons learned over the last several weeks and take tangible steps to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

They owe it to current and future residents of East Palestine and anyone who could experience a similar disaster – that is, all of us.

Joseph Otis Minott is the executive director and chief counsel at Clean Air Council. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He writes from Philadelphia. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.