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The East Palestine Train Derailment, Infrastructure, and Sacrifice Zones

The East Palestine Train Derailment, Infrastructure, and Sacrifice Zones

On February 3rd, a 150-car train passing through East Palestine, Ohio, derailed. Many of those cars were carrying hazardous materials, and at least five of those were directly involved in the derailment and subsequent events. Those five in particular were carrying vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC. Vinyl chloride is a very dangerous chemical, both carcinogenic and extremely flammable. Citizens were urged to leave their homes within one mile of the derailment, and further away were told to remain indoors. The following Monday, it was determined that the vinyl chloride needed to be burned off in order to avoid explosion. This resulted in an enormous plume of smoke which is itself highly toxic. Upon combustion, vinyl chloride turns into, among other things, hydrochloric acid and phosgene gas–exactly as deadly as it sounds.

Days later, the EPA had stated that they measured no dangerous levels of vinyl chloride, and as of the Thursday following the derailment, the government has stated that residents can return to their homes. However, residents much further away than the evacuation zone have reported noxious smells, throat and lung irritation, and animals in the region have been reported as sick, dying, and dead.

East Palestine is squarely in the Rust Belt. There is a very, very long and storied history of sacrificing the health and safety of residents in this region for the economic health of corporations and the country. While it is too early to tell the full extent of damages caused by the derailment and burn, we already know that damage will far exceed what the government and the rail company, Norfolk Southern, are willing to admit. And ultimately, this disaster rests at the feet of the government, from start to finish.

United States Infrastructure or Lack Thereof

It's already suspected that the East Palestine train derailment occurred because of wear and tear to one of the cars in the train, as well as a lack of proper weight distribution through the cars. This caused the derailment of the initial car and the jacknife of those behind it. Both issues, from the initial damage to the car to the order of those cars along the train can be chalked up to a lack of proper regulation and enforcement. (And there are a dozen or so other regulations that could have helped prevent the derailment or mitigated some of the damage, such as the antiquated brake systems allowed by a repeal courtesy of Trump, and Norfolk Southern's push to keep vinyl chloride classified as a safe chemical.)

Regulation is a perennial fight in the US government, but the fact that those on the right want to cut regulation further should chill you. We talked about the rail strike months back, and part of why that's a fight at all is because rail companies are doing their damnedest to make as much money off their employees and assets as possible. One of the ways they do that is precision-scheduled-railroading (PSR), which focuses operations on individual cars rather than whole trains. PSR reduces the number of cars used, the number of employees, and the number of running trains at any one time while maximizing the movement of each individual car, maximizing profitability. With each individual car on the move as much as possible, time for inspection is also minimized, and delays and derailments increase–causing supply chains to become even more brittle. This policy is truly evocative of end-stage capitalism. Next up, companies are gunning to cut rail crews down from three (like the number on the derailed train in East Palestine) to one. One.

Infrastructure spending has been the talk of the last couple presidential elections, with Trump promising spending and Biden delivering (some). But our most recent infrastructure grades, rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers, hover at best around the C range, with plenty of categories at D. That should sound bad already, but to put that in perspective, our railroads are rated at a B, nationally. Ohio's infrastructure, overall (which includes rail, ports, parks, wastewater, and so on) is rated at a C-. It's not for lack of tax dollars, at least not from the public. And it's not for lack of effort, in some cases, since Ohio–as with most states–is perennially in a season of road construction. And yet, you might have noticed traveling the last few years, our highways are shit. They didn't use to be.

Between the crumbling wall of regulation and the other crumbling wall of infrastructure, you have public safety. East Palestine was evacuated within a mile of the train, but the reported effects of the burnoff of vinyl chloride were far more wide-reaching, and if nothing else the ominous cloud was truly Airborne Toxic Event-worthy. The extent of the damage done by the train derailment won't be known for years, most likely, but some clear signs of danger beyond what the government is willing to admit are already present. Fish downstream from East Palestine have been reported dead. A local canid rescue has reported animals sick and dying. All area poultry–it's unclear what radius, exactly–died overnight.

It's worth noting that outside of Ohio and the Twittersphere, this story has barely been covered on the news. Up until this morning (the day of this publication) I had not seen much but passing stories of the irony of White Noise taking extras from East Palestine on CNN, though that may be changing. This story had been (and I hope it really is past tense) effectively covered up. To complicate this matter, a journalist was arrested at the governor's press conference several days ago for interrupting, though he was simply conducting a simultaneous broadcast. It's easy to reach for conspiracy in times like these, but it doesn't need to be a conspiracy for this to be unsettling.

Sacrifice Zones

We've talked about sacrifice zones before. They're an area, usually populated predominantly by minorities, that is considered acceptable to bear the burden of industrial negligence, or not worthy of government assistance (or both). A small town like East Palestine is certainly a contender. The point I want to make about these zones, though, is that as we continue on our hypercapitalist course, there will eventually be no place in the country that we live that will be considered worth preserving. Regulations will continue to be cut, infrastructure will be denied necessary funding, climate change will seep in, until most all of us are left to our own devices.

What will remain funded are those things which power the economy, directly or indirectly. City centers, factories, ports. More and more our survival will be pinned to our jobs–a move that we can expect soon enough, and that we've seen in the past, in company towns. You'll work for Amazon, live in Amazon housing, read by Amazon lights. You'll ride an Amazon bus to the warehouse, and spend most of your money on products from Amazon. For example. The roads in town will be kept up by Amazon funds, and the walls will be watched by Amazon security. The government will smile favorably upon a population on whom they have to spend very little money, while still drawing plenty therefrom (though Amazon itself, naturally, will pay next to nothing in taxes). Outside of the company town, you're liable to see a Mad Maxian world of dilapidated roads and decrepit sewer systems, factories and corporations that are permitted to ruin as they please and are tolerated because all other possibility has vanished. It sounds dystopian, and it is, but it's also nearer than we think.

To prepare for this, we must prepare to dismantle capitalism. That's a joke and also my honest advice. There are a number of reasons why we can't keep going with capitalism, and this is just another on the pile. Build a local movement, join a local movement, I don't care, but start these conversations with people. We all feel it. No one, not even folks on the right, think this system is working. We've just been fed different reasons why it isn't.