‘The Sun and Sky Were Darkened’: The Politics of the Train Derailment
You’ve seen the images: A fire that lasted for days. A huge plume of black smoke rising into the sky. A controlled release and incineration of vinyl chloride—a carcinogen with numerous health concerns—and other chemicals. Mandatory evacuations. Dead fish in the rivers, and reports of other animals dying off. Warnings not to drink the water.
Some people are blaming the Norfolk Southern railroad for more than just the February 3 accident in East Palestine, Ohio—and doing so in apocalyptic terms. When the train crashed, “it was like the gates of hell opened up,” resident Chasity Smith told the New York Times. Then, setting fire to the chemical spill “basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open,” Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist and longtime firefighter from nearby Youngstown, told a local TV station.
At a very boisterous meeting last night in the local high school gym, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway told the crowd through a bullhorn that Norfolk Southern would be held accountable. “They screwed up our town, they’re going to fix it,” he said.
At the national level, the politics of this story have so far largely broken down along party lines, with conservatives blaming the Biden administration and the EPA for not enforcing standards already on the books while liberals blame big corporations (like railroad companies) that have the backing of Republicans to do whatever they want.
One thing missing from the national debate, however, is any recognition of what is politically important and distinctive about the place where this happened. East Palestine is in a part of the country—where Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia all meet—that has been the key to both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. (Indeed, the site of the derailment is right at the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and just a half-hour’s scenic drive to the West Virginia border.) This is part of the country where the manufacturing jobs left, the foreclosure crisis turned home-ownership investment into a big joke, and opioid drug overdoses and deaths are happening in huge numbers.
And now along comes this ugly thing—chemicals that might kill you getting dumped at your doorstep—to add to the small-town, rural electorate frustration. And even more frustrating is the feeling that the residents of the town are an afterthought, that no one is doing anything about it, and that no one will do anything about it in the future.
As one resident put it, all there was to do was to leave it “up to God to ease my mind and get on with my life because I don’t have a whole lot of choice otherwise.”
President Joe Biden voiced a similar sentiment during his State of the Union address, delivered a few days after the train derailment. “For decades,” he said, “the middle class was hollowed out. Too many good-paying manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Factories at home closed down. Once-thriving cities and towns became shadows of what they used to be. And along the way, something else was lost. Pride. That sense of self-worth.”
But the notion that “I don’t have a lot of choice otherwise” is bad news for Biden. Columbiana County (pop. 101,000), where this occurred, voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 68 to 27 in 2016; it went for Trump over Biden by 72 to 27 in 2020 (the neighboring counties in Pennsylvania were similar). Accidents like this will likely make the voting results the same in 2024. The residents of this part of Appalachia, who are mostly white, think they aren’t being paid attention to, and will go with the guy who they think understands them better.
The population in towns like East Palestine believe that they’ve done what they were told to do for decades—mine the coal, make things that make other things, punch the clock daily, and put on a white shirt in the morning that will be gray when you get home. They knew of the health risks, but were willing to accept those risks for the sake of better jobs and higher income.
But this is not a reality that exists anymore, and a lot of these people feel left behind. And they’re not wrong to feel that way: Home prices in Columbiana County are about half the national average ($105,000 vs. $230,000). The median household income is about 25 percent lower ($49,400) than the national average. About 20 percent of the people are on Medicaid and about 20 percent are over 65. The median age (44.3) is 6 years older than the rest of the country. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Youngstown, Erie, and Akron are all nearby and all have similar demographics, just on a larger scale.
Add to that the facts that the Ohio River Valley is very polluted, the EPA is helping to shut down coal-fired electric plants that lined the river from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cairo, Illinois, the petrochemical biz of natural-gas fracking isn’t bringing in as much mailbox money as most thought, and the pandemic made it all worse.
And then there’s this: The railroads run through every downtown—as they have since time immemorial—only now they are only carrying pass-through cargo, not stopping to drop off or pick up as they once did. The bleak economic reality inherent in that very simple difference over time is quite noticeable when you live in such a town for most of your life. And the residents are left with the strong impression that the trains matter. That the rails matter. That getting commerce back on the tracks matters. But that the people don’t matter.
If you want to understand the wrenching transition that this region is going through, it helps to know something about nurdles.
About twenty miles from where the derailment occurred, a plant operated by Shell Oil opened last fall. It was nearly ten years in the making. Located on the Ohio River near Monaca, Pennsylvania, the facility, known as an “ethane cracker,” opened in November and employs about 600 people to make the tiny pellets that are the precursor for nearly every product made of plastic. These pellets are often called “nurdles.”
The process of making plastics involves separating the ethane and methane out of natural gas and heating the methane until it transforms into ethylene, the highly reactive raw material for polyethylene, the most common kind of plastic. The process is ecologically problematic in several ways.
One day before the train derailed, two environmental groups announced they were suing Shell Chemical Appalachia, operator of the Monaca plant, for violations of federal and state air-quality standards. The groups allege that the plant has exceeded state limits for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide, claims apparently supported by records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The environmental groups and the state say the plant has also violated limits on flaring, the process of burning off unwanted gases.
The excessive flaring has “happened quite a few times,” according to Clifford Lau, an organic chemistry professor and member of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community “But it’s not just the flaring, it’s just all the operations in general” that raise environmental concerns.The plant “gives off all kinds of VOCs just in its normal operation, nitrogen dioxide. Pittsburgh already has some of the worst air pollution in the country. And here we’ve got a plant that is going to make it worse.”
But the business community and many elected officials argue that even if there are environmental risks, the economic benefits are undeniable—and sorely needed. “You can’t just have a service economy,” Beaver County Commissioner Jack Manning said in an interview last spring. He links the loss of the area’s once-robust steel industry to the more than 50 percent decline in its school-age population between 1972 and 2012, and is eager for something to lift the community’s prospects again.
Before becoming a county commissioner, Manning had worked in the chemical industry for almost four decades, including a stint with Shell Oil in New Jersey. “I get really annoyed that people think they can sit in [a coffee shop] all day and that that’s how everybody is going to be working,” he continued. “You have to have people who work with their minds and their hands to produce things.”
And producing things is what the plant is doing—or, if not things, then at least the raw, pebbly stuff that can become things. Donald Trump got into this cracker plant issue in August 2019. Speaking at the plant site, then under construction, he praised the future facility’s expected annual output of 1.6 million tons of plastic pellets as a great boon for—well, everyone.
“We’re seeing the future of energy independence,” Trump said. “We have that independence, but what we really want is American dominance . . . I’m making [the] lives of people much, much better.”
Trump did have a point in all this, his customary self-aggrandizement notwithstanding. A fundamental transition between economies in a region like this will inevitably produce winners and losers. Some in East Palestine—and more among those who live at least a few miles away along nearby tributaries—doubtlessly see the train derailment as an acceptable hazard of the region’s economy, as deadly trawling accidents might be in an area economically dependent on commercial fishing. The plastic nurdles still need to be produced and sent to the factories because they are “the building blocks for nearly every product made of plastic.” New regulations on this production are tantamount, in their eyes, to a deliberate threat to their livelihoods.
The chemicals that help make all those plastics have to be transported from somewhere, and trains from the cracker plant carrying its grainy and easily shed cargo will run through East Palestine as they head west. Accidents happen every once in a while. It’s possible the next East Palestine accident will be a nurdle-strewing derailment.
In the case of the East Palestine train derailment, the solution that the government and Norfolk Southern went with of burning the chemicals and then sending in the crisis manager to ascertain the severity of the situation seems like the sort of decision that favors the trains more than the people. And that is the big problem right now. These people in Appalachia have been putting up with this sort of thing for too long. They are very tired of it. And that is a huge, underappreciated, and potentially decisive fact of our nation’s politics right now.