Reflecting on the East Palestine train derailment

I make a conscious effort to keep my content enlightening, thought-provoking, and positive.

But a news story I was alerted to recently about train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio is going to make the latter difficult. Sometimes, we just need to bring the negativity forward and do our damndest to tackle it, however we can.

In my eyes, I couldn’t tell all of you that I care about the environment and our natural resources without at least openly reflecting on this incident.

I will be the first to tell you that I am not a scientist. I am no longer a reporter. I’m just someone trying to unpack a horrific, impactful event that seemingly no one is talking about.

On February 3, a train operated by Norfolk Southern Railroad derailed in the town of around 5,000 people in Northeastern Ohio. This train was carrying, among other hazardous chemicals, vinyl chloride, an incredibly flammable gas that is used in the production of certain varieties of plastic products.

As the estimated 1 million pounds of vinyl chloride began to leak, it got into the soil, air, and water. Residents of the town were asked to because it was projected that a potential explosion could carry shrapnel as far as a mile from the crash site.

In an effort to avoid this scenario, authorities decided to essentially conduct a controlled burn of the remaining vinyl chloride. This, in and of itself, caused a serious health risk because exposure to burning vinyl chloride leads to an increased risk of several types of cancers in addition to more immediate side effects.

The problem is: when vinyl chloride is burned it turns into a different gas called hydrogen chloride. When hydrogen chloride comes into contact with atmospheric water vapor, it transforms into hydrochloric acid and phosgene.

Phosgene was a primitive chemical weapon during the first World War and is one of the components of mustard gas. It was used with the intent of destroying mucous membranes in the lungs.

Think about that for a second. Creating a weapon of war was the solution in this situation.

That’s horror movie material.

Yet, as the days wore on and we started getting a clearer picture of the aftermath, this story really didn’t seem to make its way into the mainstream. Why?

Was it that politicians, who rarely hold large corporations accountable anyway, were hoping this would all just go away as we were distracted by stories about Chinese spy balloons or one of the world’s largest sporting events? Maybe. It’s not implausible those factors played a role.

But, the more I reflected on it, I found myself considering some far more troubling options.

The first is that large-scale tragedies have become such a frequent occurrence in our world that it’s simply impossible to pay close attention to all of them. No matter how empathetic we are, there is only so much attention and compassion to give. After all, we all have things going on in our lives that seem to have much larger impact on our very existence than the misfortune of someone, or a group of people, in some far away place.

The other, equally disheartening, reason is that we as a society simply don’t prioritize our natural resources.

Those types of stories just don’t wield the attention-grabbing power that generates the amounts of link clicks needed to keep the shrinking shreds of viable, reliable journalism alive. I fear our apathy toward the environment has made coverage of stories like this a foolish business investment.

That’s wild considering that nothing we care about can take precedence over air to breath, water to drink, and an inhabitable climate. These are literally requirements for life as we know it. Yet, we simply don’t spend time talking about these things, much less acting on them. For some mind-boggling reason, they just aren’t a priority.

As residents have started to return to East Palestine, reports have surfaced of discoveries of dead wildlife, livestock, and rivers and streams full of dead fish.

While authorities report that air and water quality are at acceptable levels for the time being, even many officials admit they currently don’t know what the full impact event is or will be. It could be decades before we know the true scale.

Now I want to be clear, there are countless individuals who are working hard to minimize the impact of this disaster. Though a lack of available in-depth reporting has made specific details on these efforts scarce.

Even Norfolk Southern has promised to contribute money to the remediation efforts. However, money alone can’t fix this. It’s likely the only way to “fix” something of this scale is to never let it happen in the first place and that cat is out of the bag.

Aside from our general indifference about one of the largest environmental disasters of this generation, the worst part of this incident is that it was just that — an incident.

Accidents happen. Incidents are avoidable.

The little information we have at this point seems to suggest this fiasco was avoidable.

The NTSB reported the train’s crew pulled the emergency brake, only to discover an issue with one of the axles.

For years, railroad lobbyists have fought against any meaningful safety regulations in regards to brakes. During Obama Administration, there were efforts made to more strongly regulate safety standards on freight trains. After the lobby had their way, minor changes were made, but only to trains hauling natural gas. Norfolk Southern was among the contingent of railroad companies that fought for that scope change.

During the Trump Administration, even those minuscule regulatory updates were repealed in their entirety.

The question we need to start asking ourselves is: Is this all worth it?

This is just the most recent example of avoidable environmental catastrophes that have taken place on American soil. There will be others. I promise you that. And they will likely be worse.

Are we really willing to live like this?

In the world’s richest country, are we truly OK with risking the wellbeing of vast numbers of people, just so those in power can cut a few more corners and jump through a few less hoops?

Do chemicals capable of causing this level of harm really need to be in everyday household items?

Say what you will about the viability of the tenants of capitalism but, are the consequences of this event and the risks posed by the potential of a similar one happening in the future really worth a company or two making a relatively modest profit in the short term?

We need to start looking in the mirror and asking ourselves what we really prioritize because, right now, our lack of interest and action speaks volumes.

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