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February 14, 2023

Buttigieg Fiddles While East Palestine Burns

An awful train derailment in rural Ohio nearly two weeks ago doesn’t seem to have gotten the attention it deserves.

It’s been nearly a decade since a runaway train hauling 72 tankers of crude oil derailed near the center of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The subsequent explosion and inferno pretty much wiped out the town and killed 47 of its 6,000 residents. And yet, rather remarkably, it ranks as only the fourth-deadliest railway disaster in Canadian history.

We mention this because we often forget that while railways are essential to our way of life, they can also on occasion be deadly dangerous, especially when transporting volatile cargo. Or toxic cargo.

Which brings us to the rural town of East Palestine, Ohio, which was the site of a massive 50-car train derailment on the night of Friday, February 3. The derailment was caused by a broken axle, and no one was immediately injured, but the longer-term human and environmental costs are yet to be fully understood.

Judging just by the enormity of the derailment and the toxicity of the load and the blackness of the smoke, it seems pretty serious, no? Take a look from afar:

As the Associated Press reported at the time, “Norfolk Southern said 20 of the more than 100 cars were classified as carrying hazardous materials — defined as cargo that could pose any kind of danger ‘including flammables, combustibles, or environmental risks.’”

Hazardous indeed. The fire lasted several days, and 14 of the cars were carrying vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic gas used in making PVC. In addition to the vinyl chloride, other hazardous chemicals seeped into the ground. As Fox News reports, “Three days later, residents were ordered to evacuate while Ohio officials executed a controlled release of vinyl chloride to prevent an explosion, which sent thick clouds of poisonous smoke billowing into the air.”

A controlled release and burn seems like the least-bad of what must’ve been a bunch of bad options.

Fox News continues: “East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick said on Feb. 7 that air and water testing showed it was safe for residents to return home. However, some of those who have done so have reported sick and dying animals in the area. Taylor Holzer, who operates a Dairy farm just outside the evacuation zone in East Palestine, told WKBN that several foxes he keeps have puffy and swollen faces, and one even got sick and died.”

There are also reports of lots of dead fish in nearby waters, and dead chickens in their coops. If other animals are the canary in the coal mine, then the people of East Palestine are in trouble.

Norfolk Southern says that more than 340 in-home air tests have been conducted since the accident without showing any substances related to the derailment “and does not indicate a health risk.” But how do we account for all the dead animals?

Meanwhile, what does our intrepid transportation secretary have to say about all this? Not much of anything.

Nothing to see here, Pothole Pete Buttigieg seems to be saying, if we can draw any inferences from his failure to utter so much as a peep about the incident. This is the worst Transportation secretary on record, after all, and he’d never get away with such incompetence if he were a lowly straight white male. But one wonders: If the derailment had happened near LA or New York City — or Cambridge or Ann Arbor or Madison or Berkeley — rather than a rural and mostly white town in Ohio (Trump +8), would the administration have paid more attention to it?

At an event Monday during the National Association of Counties Conference, Buttigieg did note that the construction workers doing “good-paying jobs” in “a neighborhood of color” often “don’t look like they came from anywhere near the neighborhood” they’re working in.

So there’s that.

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