6 min read

The Plastic Train Wreck Should Be a Wake-Up Call

The Plastic Train Wreck Should Be a Wake-Up Call

Thanks to a mountain of deadlines a mile high, I haven't yet been able to focus as much attention on the East Palestine train derailment as I'd like, but two things were very clear to me from jump: this is what happens when you leave polluting industries entirely unregulated and the United States is on its own train, speeding back in time a century.

On February 3, just before 9pm at night, a Norfolk Southern train derailed near the small Ohio town of East Palestine, which sits on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania. According to the EPA's train manifest, of its 150 cars, 34 were carrying toxic chemicals or oil. The owners of those cars include Occidental Chemicals (the chemical division of Occidental Petroleum), Exxon Chemical America (the chemical arm of ExxonMobil), and a company called ShinTech, the American subidiary of Japan's largest chemical manufacturer, which claims to be the world's largest producer of polyvinyl-chloride, or PVC plastic.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the derailment, but a faulty wheel bearing on one car is suspected to be the culprit. To avoid a massive chemical explosion, fire crews evacuated the town and then released some of the chemicals and burned them off. I'm not sure exactly how far away you'd need to be to avoid the cancer-causing effects of prolongued vinyl chloride inhalation, but residents weren't that far away, and many have reported dizziness and headaches (a classic sign of exposure to some of the other chemicals onboard, benzene and butyl acrylate—which is used to make paint) since returning to their homes. Chemicals that made their way into local water sources killed off 3,500 fish.

As of today, the EPA has given a clean bill of health to both the air and water in East Palestine, although it's warning those with private wells to drink bottled water until they can test their water. But some residents are still complaining of odors and various symptoms of exposure. And news broke earlier this week that contaminated soil has not been entirely removed from the site...that could mean toxic chemicals leaching into groundwater, not just right now but every time it rains in the future. Add to that the chemical industry's loooong history of denying that vinyl chloride in particular is even remotely dangerous and no surprise that East Palestine residents aren't exactly feeling safe in their homes.

So why am I delving into this in a climate newsletter? For a start, I don't know if you could tell from some of the names listed above, but a whole lot of oil companies are also in the chemicals business. As I and others have reported on extensively over the years, petrochemicals are the fossil fuel industry's great hope as the world transitions away from using their product for transportation and electricity. They are driving a global plastic boom, whether people want it or not, and then using that boom to justify more oil and gas development. That push is turning the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor this train was running along into yet another Cancer Alley, with a petrochemical buildout rivaling Louisiana's, and residents left with inexplicable illnesses and homes worth nothing.

But the East Palestine derailment is also illustrative of a broader trend in the U.S. toward de-regulation. There's a powerful minority of people in this country who have been working for the past two decades to roll back the clock to the days of the Industrial Revolution, when men were men, fewer people had rights (or a vote), and business was entirely unregulated. Leaders of this movement, like Leonard Leo, the former head of the Federalist Society who moved on to another shadowy group (CRC Advisors) once the public started to figure out what the Federalist Society was up to (placing anti-regulatory, but socially conservative justices in positions of power around the country), are not shy or secretive about this goal.

"Leo described it in his speech to the Council on National Policy in 2019: he said America stands at the precipice of the revival of what he described as the 'structural constitution,'" says Lisa Graves, a former Senate investigator who went on to run the Center for Media and Democracy and now her own research firm, True North. Graves has been following Leo's work and dark money in politics in general for more than 20 years. "And he told the audience that no one alive in that room had seen the type of legal revolution that America was about to see based on the appointments to the Supreme Court and other courts to revive this so-called structural constitution to the law as it existed pre-New Deal."

It was train derailments that first prompted the U.S. government to pass its very first regulations on industry. And the passage of those regulations—in combination with the growing power of the labor movement and increased scrutiny from journalists—spawned the creation of the disinformation industry as part of corporate America's strategy to retain power and minimize the existence and the impact of regulation. So when I see women's rights being sent back five decades, states considering allowing child labor again, voting rights being stripped from citizens (particularly non-white citizens), the federal government telling rail workers to suck it up and work with no time off, the increased criminalization of protest, and now not just the East Palestine derailment but similar accidents every three days according to the EPA, I think...holy shit they've done it. We are hurtling back to those pre-New Deal days with a dizzying swiftness.

Only without the atmosphere we had in those days. Without the time to sort ourselves out. So at the very moment when we the people are in the most danger from corporate interests run amok, there is less oversight of them than there has been in decades.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine really sums it all up for me. After years spent weakening laws for polluting industries, allowing corporations to push preemptive laws that ban the public from even attempting to regulate them, DeWine stepped up to the podium this week positively incredulous that such a thing as the East Palestine derailment could happen in his state. On Tuesday, the governor urged Congress to consider changes to hazardous cargo notification requirements, which currently don't require companies to let states know when they're transporting hazardous chemicals within their borders.

"Frankly, if this is true – and I'm told it's true – this is absurd," DeWine said. "We should know when we have trains carrying hazardous material that are going through the state of Ohio."

Big if true, DeWine.

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Climate Must-Reads of the Week

  • Senator Whitehouse is picking up the torch on climate disinfo investigation. (E&E News) Welp, it didn't happen the easy way (which, as I mentioned before, would have been House staffers just handing over the million or so documents sitting in their offices after subpoena-ing the oil majors and their trade groups), but it's happening. Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) has announced he plans to pick up where the House left off with a Senate probe, which should enable his staff to take possession of those documents and get moving again.
  • Climate activists and scientists continue to focus on private jets. (Europe News) On Valentine's Day, climate scientists and activists protested at more than 16 private air strips, calling for the end to exorbitantly high-emissions travel reserved for the ultra wealthy. One of those scientists, Rose Abramoff, described private jets as "low-hanging fruit" to me: "This is not a question of asking the public to change an average, every day behavior," she said. "This is asking the ultra wealthy to stop doing an extremely high-emissions activity that is absolutely unnecessary."
  • Exxon Backs Away from Algae Biofuels. (Bloomberg) The long-time centerpiece of the company's climate advertising has been cut from the team, Bloomberg reports (I'm working on a follow-on piece for The Guardian that will be out next week). Exxon's algae ads have long drawn accusations of greenwashing from skeptics, but the company invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the research from 2009 until it began pulling funding in late 2022. Its last remaining project, with the National Renewable Energy Lab, will come to a close in the next month or so (it was always intended to end then, according to NREL).
  • Right-wing Media Are Using the Ohio Train Derailment to Make a Reverse Racism Argument. Another page from the history books! The entire reason race was created was to keep poor white people from aligning themselves with enslaved Africans and, later, immigrant laborers. Race continues to be an effective weapon in the fight against class solidarity today and right-wing media coverage of the East Palestine derailment is a classic example. Fox News host Jesse Watters, Turning Point USA spokesperson Benny Johnson, and pundit Charlie Kirk have all claimed in the past week that either the derailment was intentional in some way as part of the "war on white people," or that media coverage hasn't been as robust as it should have been because the crash impacted a predominantly white community. Somehow the accident has also become a pathway to mocking climate protestors on Fox News.