Courtesy of John Mueller via Wikimedia Commons under CCBY-2.0

On Feb. 3, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio, a 151-car long, 18,000-ton freight train had 38 of its cars derailed. Eleven cars were carrying hazardous flammable chemicals, most of which were controllably burned. The spill led to the evacuation of residents within one mile due to health concerns. It also caused ecosystemic destruction that killed an estimated 3,500 small fish. The company responsible for the incident, Norfolk Southern, offered $1000 checks to affected residents, but people are reluctant since it might prevent them from seeking legal recourse. As of today, the EPA allowed residents to return to their homes after reporting that air quality went back to normal.

This incident was completely preventable, but corporations have always aimed to increase their profits without worrying about ethics. Unless people start becoming more aggressive about demanding real accountability from companies, the frequency of events like these will not decrease, and there could be an even more harmful incident.

This is not a unique case. There have been many occurrences caused by harmful labor practices. The eerily similar New Jersey derailment also spilled the same chemical. The causes of the incident were a direct consequence of the implementation of precision scheduled railroading meaning; less workers, more hours, reduced inspections and trains longer than safety standards. Additionally, the freight train was 151 cars long and was already experiencing problems prior to the incident. This practice causes almost thousands of derailments every year.

Government policies that prioritize workers and worker safety could have significantly contributed to the prevention of derailments like these. Back in December, President Joe Biden, who frequently addresses himself as “Union Joe,” illegalized rail strikes as a response to the recent rail dispute “to avoid an economic catastrophe at a very bad time in the calendar.” Currently, rail workers do not have paid sick leave and are punished for the inability to work a day, especially during the holidays.

The fundamental problem behind East Palestine and other harmful incidents is corporate lobbying. Lobbying is a crucial mechanism that allows companies to exert major control over government policy. Railroad companies spent a total of $27.4 million in lobbying, $1.9 million of which came from Norfolk Southern. Within the same year that Trump repealed the 2015 safety mandate requiring high hazard flammable trains being fitted with modern brakes by 2021. Norfolk Southern was also one of the lobbyists that contributed to Biden’s illegalization of rail strikes.

The reason cited for the repeal of the 2015 safety mandate for high-hazard trains was that the cost exceeded the benefit,  but the safety mandate would only cost up to 0.7% of their revenue. The case here is not that corporations are incompetent or do not have the means to improve working standards. They are aware of the problem and are actively suppressing them.