February 17, 2023- I spent the better part of this morning helping to evaluate a school facility, as a potential Red Cross shelter site, in the event of a large-scale emergency. The purpose is always to help people who are suffering, as a result of wildfire, local flooding or a hazardous materials event.

The chances of the last two are relatively small. That set me to thinking about East Palestine, Ohio- a place that has suffered severe environmental and health damage, as a result of a chemical leak and “controlled” fire, which nonetheless sent toxic smoke into the air, over at least a 50-mile radius of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Chemical pollution of the Ohio River and its tributaries has already reportedly resulted in large-scale fish kills.

Norfolk Southern, which operates the trains involved in the incident, resisted Federal pressure to digitize the pneumatic braking systems on its trains. That pressure was relieved under Trump administration rules, apparently with the expectation that the company would figure out how to do the right thing, without the government’s knee on its back. The railroad opted not to update the braking systems, citing cost. The Biden administration as well, has defended Norfolk Southern in court, up to now. I wonder, given the costs that are accruing to the company, as it pays for Hazardous Materials cleanup and gives $5000 a household to people in the affected area, whether failure to update was indeed cost effective.

The Federal EPA is actively involved in the response to this horror, but the rest of the Executive Branch seems to be not so concerned. Norfolk Southern is a Class I railroad, meaning that it has a fair amount of clout in the national transportation scheme. Do the people of East Palestine and western Beaver County matter much to the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Justice? Bureaucratic wheels grind slowly, so time will tell. Maybe electronic pneumatic braking will again be required. Maybe the winding railroad through the hills of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia will be upgraded, minimizing the risks that residents of northern Appalachia face, on a daily basis.

Maybe this terrible event will lead to some meaningful long-term action. Maybe the President’s words, about not leaving anyone out, will be truthful, in deed. Time will tell.

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