The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

A Toxic Film over Their Land

Mar 6, 2023

A train wreck February 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, ended with the Norfolk Southern railroad deliberately draining five tank cars of toxic, flammable chemicals into a burn pit beside the tracks, and setting it all on fire.

The governors of both Ohio and Pennsylvania said that the railroad not only rushed to set this fire but also refused to consider alternative approaches. A retired Ohio fire expert said, “They just nuked a whole town with chemicals to get the trains running again.”

Perhaps the railroad had learned from previous similar accidents. In 2012, for example, a vinyl chloride tank car fell off a bridge into a New Jersey stream. It was in a tidal zone, so the Coast Guard took command of the site. They carefully secured the area, removed the chemical, and safely pulled the tanker out of the water. The tracks were closed for 18 days. In East Palestine they were closed for four.

Or perhaps the governor of Ohio was influenced by Norfolk Southern campaign contributions, the known amount near $200,000. Or maybe by the former Norfolk Southern executive who is in the governor’s administration.

Criminals in Charge

In any case, the criminal was given control of the crime scene. Norfolk Southern claimed that one tanker was about to explode. So, they created a burn pit, drained five tankers into it, and lit it up.

They claimed it was a “controlled” burn. But it was no more controlled than a match thrown into a grill with a whole can of lighter fluid in it. Intense black smoke towered into the sky and spread downwind.

By the next night, EPA staff, testing for four airborne chemicals, told the governor that the air was at safe levels. The emergency evacuation order was lifted. People could return home, they said … and the trains could run.

People Get Sick

People returning home immediately felt sick. Children could not breathe well. A dog and a pet fox died. Chickens died. The townspeople demanded answers and officials only repeated, “Our tests show it’s safe.” Something was clearly wrong with the testing!

Sure enough, when reporters consulted chemical safety scientists, the scientists explained that open burning of vinyl chloride can produce hundreds of chemical compounds. “The toxicology of most of these is very poorly understood,” said one scientist.

The 5,000 townspeople face dangers not well understood! But the local hospital and urgent care offices diagnosed case after case of chemical respiratory illnesses.

One month after the accident, a Norfolk Southern lobbyist finally faced a town meeting. One after another, people who had returned home described how sick they are. How a toxic film had been laid over their entire town, and over the surrounding fields and streams. What are all these chemicals? Why are we getting sick? And how are you going to make this right?

Long-Term Dangers

The lobbyist of course said the usual PR things. But there is no way to make this right. Among the many chemicals such a burn produces is dioxin, first made famous by its use in Agent Orange to kill the forests of Vietnam. Vietnamese and Americans still today suffer the recurrent cancers and birth defects caused by this very long lasting poison. Plants take it in from the soil and it moves up the food chain to humans.

In the human body, dioxin lasts 7 to 11 years. “Humans were not designed to deal with exposure to dioxins. There’s no safe exposure limit,” said one epidemiologist.

Not until the day before the town meeting, one month after the accident, did the EPA order Norfolk Southern to test the homes and farms for dioxin. Without the extreme uproar created by the townspeople, they would not have done even this. And who believes that the criminal will truthfully describe the crime scene?

Nuked with Chemicals

Now, the town is poisoned for many years to come, without a way to fix it. Long-term illnesses and early deaths are inevitable. There have been too many previous examples!

The only safe solution is for the entire poisoned area to be closed off as if it were radioactive. Complete funding has to be provided for the people to relocate and re-establish their lives. A humane society would take care of this.

But in this profit-driven system, getting any basic justice requires an explosion of anger as fiery as the explosion from the train.