Source: NTSB, Wikimedia Commons

Social media has been alight with the figurative and literal fallout of a disaster arising from a train derailment in Ohio on February 3. The train, carrying industrial chemicals, derailed 50 miles north of Pittsburgh in the small town of East Palestine, home to roughly 5,000 people. The wreckage precipitated an explosion of hazardous materials, unleashing a range of toxic chemicals and gasses into the surrounding air, land, and water. Without offering any specifics as to the extent of the hazard, the local government evacuated 1,500 to 2,000 residents, which had to be increased to over 5,000 people across a one-by-two-mile radius several days later. 

After a virtual blackout in the mainstream bourgeois media, viral posts circulated of an ominous black cloud rising from the wreckage site—a menacing miasma produced by the burning of hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, one of several carcinogenic and toxic substances released into the atmosphere by fires and “controlled burns” of chemicals that lasted for days. 

The controlled burning of these substances was presented as a success by officials in public statements that failed to mention that this meant, in effect, the uncontrolled release of massive amounts of toxic gas into the surrounding atmosphere. The public has rightly received these press releases critically, as the official statements seem only to parrot the explanations given by the responsible party, Norfolk Southern Railway, which sought to downplay its liability rather than report the extent of the hazard accurately. 

In the weeks since, a grim picture has emerged of the derailment’s actual effects on people and the environment. As outlets have belatedly picked up coverage of these developments, residents as far as 10 to 15 miles away have reported on social media that they cannot leave their houses without feeling a burning sensation in their eyes. Smaller livestock and aquatic wildlife are reportedly dying off en masse, including near and in the Ohio River, a major national waterway providing five million people with drinking water. In addition, reports of strong odors from miles away indicate that tens of thousands of people are still inhaling toxic gasses from the spill. 

Palestine Ohio derailment 2/23
Source: thunderlips36/Wikimedia Commons

Under these circumstances, the capitalist state effectively acts as a PR firm and cleanup crew for the class it represents. A reporter attempting to televise the governor’s statements during a press conference shortly after the disaster was hauled away by police, allegedly for “being too loud.” From an environmental and humanitarian point of view, the decision to burn massive amounts of toxic chemicals was blindingly stupid, but makes perfect sense from the point of view of the profit-hungry capitalists. As one hazardous materials expert noted, “we basically nuked a town in order to keep a railroad open.” Although only time will tell how far and how long this disaster will impact public health, some experts expect “cancer clusters” to crop up in surrounding communities as the carcinogens work their way through them.  

Along with the railroad bosses, the blame for this disaster lies squarely with their sycophantic servants in the Democratic Party. To this, we must add the labor leaders, who have perniciously failed to wrench the workers away from these class enemies, as well as those “socialists” who still insist upon providing the Democrats with a left cover. 

From the beginning of their struggle late last year, railroad workers pointed out that the strenuous conditions of work imposed upon them by the bosses would lead to a general breakdown of the railroad system and the evisceration of safety standards. After “Scranton Joe” and Congress scandalously declared any attempt by railroad workers to strike illegal, they worked closely with the railroad companies to craft a settlement containing no commitment for new hires to alleviate the long shifts that were a focal point of the dispute, and a “wage increase” that does not keep up with the current rate of inflation. To add insult to injury, the provision for sick days was abandoned entirely, a slap in the face for the workers who had placed this right front and center in their fight. 

Supposed left-wingers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar went along with this farce, with AOC duplicitously claiming “we’ve got your back” to railroad workers just hours before she and nearly every other “progressive” member of Congress voted to hang them out to dry. This and other actions taken by the parties in power to protect big-business profits led directly to this catastrophe. Every thinking person—and especially every self-avowed socialist—should take note: this is what “harm reduction” and “lesser-evilism” look like in practice.

The Chernobyl-esque mismanagement and duplicitous response to this disaster clearly show the priorities of the capitalist class and their political representatives. That which is good for the working class is good for society. On the other hand, that which is good for the capitalists is generally “toxic” for the world as a whole.

Norfolk Southern has donated a paltry $25k to relief efforts and reports that it has paid out an additional $2–$3 million in remuneration to individuals affected by this disaster. This company, which successfully lobbied both major parties in 2017 to remove requirements for automatic braking systems that could have lessened the severity of this disaster, raked in $12.7 billion in profits last year. Just weeks after the East Palestine incident, yet another derailment of a Norfolk Southern train occurred on February 16, this time in Michigan. While no casualties or spillage of hazmat cargo was reported, these events show that private ownership over our critical railway infrastructure by these profit-greedy incompetents is a ticking time bomb.

Socialist Revolution believes we need a mass socialist party to fight for power against both capitalist parties, with the labor movement breaking immediately from the Democrats as a fundamental first step. Socialists elected to office would use their platform to expose the rotten deals and lobbying behind the scenes that undermine workers’ safety and livelihoods. Utilizing the power of the working class, emboldened and unified by a revolutionary socialist program, such a party would work to expose the ruthless exploitation and irrationality of the railroad companies, making a case for the immediate nationalization and democratic public ownership of the railways under the control of its operators, engineers, and workers—the people who actually know how to run it safely.