Journal Opinion: East Palestine Derailment

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There’s no denying the toxic corporate, economic, civic, social and political tracks the derailment Feb. 3 in East Palestine connects nationwide.

The unfolding aftermath – now in its fourth week – shows the dangers of a profit motive run amok, be it by Norfolk Southern, partisan media or political performers seeking platforms and relevance.  

Corporate greed, relaxed safety regulations and poor oversight – the result of millions of dollars in rail industry contributions to Democrats and Republicans – converged in East Palestine. Distrust of institutions and anger among the so-called “left behind” has engulfed this devastated community, making it emblematic of the wrong tracks our nation is on.

As East Palestine resident Amy Brittain told Politico, “We’re a microcosm of what’s going on in the entire country.”

Fortunately, the derailment has not resulted in human loss of life – as of this writing. But it forced residents to be evacuated for several days and left them fearful of the air they breathe and the water they drink following the controlled burn of the hazardous chemicals in the derailed cars that Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw authorized and personally witnessed, a fact disclosed two weeks later.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, has been highly critical of the controlled release of the chemicals, stating in a letter to Shaw that Norfolk Southern “failed to explore all potential courses of action,” including some options that might have left the rail line closed longer but would have been safer for “first responders, residents and the environment.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has been more measured although he, too, has been critical of the railroad and emphatic that state government would hold Norfolk Southern fully accountable for years to come.

Criticism of the federal government did not abate Feb. 16 with the first visit to East Palestine by a member of the Biden administration, Michael Regan, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who had come under fire for not visiting the site or even making a statement regarding the derailment, finally came to East Palestine Feb. 23, the same day that the National Transportation Safety Board issued its damning preliminary report.     

The seemingly disjointed response, confusion over which agency is responsible for what and what actions are being taken – or not – amid growing distrust in institutions and their leaders fueled the dissemination of disinformation and, predictably, political grandstanding and pontificating.

“The only presidents I want to see are dead presidents in my wallet,” said Joe Botinovch, owner of a flower shop in East Palestine. “They’re using East Palestine like China and Russia and the U.S. are using Ukraine. It’s a proxy war.”

And it needs to stop.