A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

At about one o’clock on Saturday, March 11, at least 40 local residents and activists gathered in Lisbon, Ohio to demand justice for East Palestine. They focused their protest on rail giant Norfolk Southern and its role in the derailing of the train on Feb. 3, 2023.

The seat of Columbiana County, Lisbon is less than 20 miles from the now infamous East Palestine. The afternoon air was cold but not biting – typical March weather here in the Mahoning Valley. But the atmosphere was tense. 

People had joined together to show their anger at Norfolk Southern and determination to make them pay for damages. They held signs and distributed info about community actions to get more people involved. They also gave testimony for the news cameras.

I made my way from my home in Salem, just a 10 minute drive down State Route 45. The derailed train had first passed through our town, already on fire, on its way to its eventual wreckage site. It easily could have been my own family evacuating in February–a thought that has kept me up many nights since.

I parked and shuffled from my spot near Fox’s Pizza Den into the town square. There, protesters had already gathered, holding signs for passing traffic. “Make Norfolk Pay,” read one. “You break it, you buy it,” read another.

Railroad Workers United didn’t attend for fear of company retaliation, but sent a solidarity statement read by a DSA member. “Put power back in the hands of the workers!” cried one speaker. “Workers make the world run.”

Now often called Ohio’s Chernobyl, East Palestine previously led a quiet existence. But the town of 4,800 was thrown into disarray, and then despair, by February 3’s 150-railcar “mega-train” derailment. This industrial catastrophe doused the surrounding area with extremely hazardous chemicals. 20 railcars contained deadly compounds, including one million pounds of vinyl chloride.

Residents around the town testified (and still do) of headaches, nose bleeds, dizzy spells, nausea, rashes, difficulty breathing, sore throats, and more. Norfolk Southern and the government specified a one mile hazard zone, but people 30 to 50 miles out–or more–are being affected. According to testimonies at the solidarity action in Lisbon, Norfolk Southern’s “clinic” staff and state officials have told sick residents that these symptoms are “all in their heads.” (Yet CDC inspectors have also fallen sick with the same symptoms. So much for that!)

One protestor spoke about the potential environmental impacts across the eastern central United States. Water quality and vital species are under threat from this chemical cocktail. Local extinction for many species, such as protected hellbender salamanders, is a serious concern. 

40,000 fish and at least 5,000 other species died within mere hours of the accident. Livestock and pets fell ill, even died suddenly. (I watched my own chicken flock scrupulously in the weeks after, waiting for any sign of air pollution.) 

More than one protestor expressed community fears about local game, such as venison. Many hunters and other locals still rely on wild game for much of their diet. These testimonies were followed up with demands for increased SNAP benefits for the area to prevent wider ingestion of contaminated foods. One speaker declared: “We need Norfolk Southern to pay more– for all of it! Not $5 per person!” That last line being a reference to Norfolk Southern’s first pathetic attempt at a “donation” of just $25,000 in the immediate aftermath.

What is clear is this was no accident. It was the result of cold negligence for private profit. Norfolk Southern has long resisted safety regulations, such as improved braking, safer rail cars, and shorter train lengths, that would have prevented this disaster. Then, during a truly apocalyptic disaster, the company rushed to get trains running again. Residents, who had been made to evacuate under threat of force, were then prematurely called back so that Norfolk Southern could resume rail shipments. The company deleted almost all of the train’s onboard footage of the derailment. Norfolk Southern has been altering the rails to cover their tracks since. They still refuse to release chemical testing data and outside researchers must do the job independently.

Norfolk Southern and the U.S. government jumped the gun in order to resume their earth-wrecking profit racket. The safety of local residents and wildlife came in a distant second to corporate greed and government corruption.

Another speaker who has been doing corporate research on Norfolk Southern noted that the company is poisoning towns across the United States. Towns have been covered in coal dust because coal is shipped in uncovered carts. Towns are losing their potable water as a result of the pollution. Norfolk Southern releases PR statements full of promises they won’t leave East Palestine behind but the company has already devastated many other communities. “Our fight here helps these other places and communities, too,” the speaker noted.

Nothing has changed since. Just days after the tracks were cleared, my wife reported counting at least 130 cars as a train passed the tracks half a mile from our home. I have begun counting, too, and they have all been similarly overloaded. Trains have derailed in Sandusky and Pittsburgh. The danger has not passed. The company and the government clearly do not care.

Property values have bottomed out, leading to calls for Norfolk Southern to compensate locals with billions of dollars in damages. The Ohio Peace Council has put out a petition calling for Norfolk Southern to buy properties from anyone who wants to move. (Yours truly has signed it, and I encourage you to sign it, too.) Costs to residents continue to mount in the meantime and at least 100 students have opted to return to school remotely. 

Even that may work in the company’s favor, a local has pointed out to me, if it sells or rents the land for more industrial use. Of course, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. There are real people enduring real trauma and suffering, and they must be helped even if a corporation takes advantage of it. But under capitalism, even public restitution is profitable!

Horrible toxins and dangerous carcinogenic compounds, called dioxins, were released into the environment in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and perhaps further. Despite all that experts know, this exact situation has never happened before.

There is a real sense in which East Palestine and nearby communities are a chemical and biological experiment running human test subjects. No one knows exactly what the effects on human or environmental health will be. 

This is nothing new for us, in one sense. Northeast Ohio has long been treated like a homegrown “third world” for American companies to abuse, exploit, and pollute. We have long dealt with higher rates of cancer and other diseases from environmental contamination. They call us “flyover country” so that the rest of the population doesn’t notice (or, if they notice, don’t feel too bad).

I’ve personally seen many comments on social media saying that we “deserve” it because our counties veer rightwing in electoral politics: “You got the safety deregulation you voted for!” But this viewpoint leaves out too much of reality to be tenable.

It’s easy to ignore that 45% of eligible voters didn’t even show up to the polls for any candidate in 2016; that 30% of East Palestine’s voters picked other candidates; that the U.S. elections system is absurdly gerrymandered and artificially limited to two essentially identical parties; that babies, fish, trees, or deer can’t vote at all. It’s easy to forget that we all share the air and water, or that our soil grows so much of everyone’s food. 

This callousness, especially in the “backwater” parts of the area, is nothing new to us. But the scale and immediacy of the disaster were beyond anything this area has experienced since the Cuyahoga last caught fire.

Another spoke about the need for authentic democracy in the rail industry and our communities. They put it bluntly: “Who voted for Norfolk Southern to come through our communities? Who voted for Norfolk Southern to poison East Palestine?” The answer, of course, is none of us. They continued, “We have no democratic control or oversight of the rails!”

What would such local control, or ‘democratic oversight,’ of the rail industry look like? Protestors made the point that it only begins with strong, interconnected communities where everyone’s voice is welcome. “A living, breathing democracy is when we come together with neighbors, friends, our communities. It’s not a poll once per year. We need to meet together. That’s how we make Norfolk Southern pay!”

Norfolk Southern is enmeshed throughout the eastern US. Protestors pointed out the company is funding Cop City—where one Wobbly lost their life mere months ago—and demanded it “fund the solutions to this problem instead!” 

Werner Lange, chair of the Ohio Peace Council, also spoke. “You break it, you pay for it!” he declared. “And [Norfolk Southern should pay] not just thousands, not just millions, not just billions, but BILLIONS AND BILLIONS” to make things right for the whole area.

In the protestors’ opinions– and the writer’s–Governor DeWine’s water sip photo op was a joke. The speaker noted that officials did the same thing in Flint, but problems persisted. It is clear that the issue is consumption over years being unsafe, not mere sips for TV cameras. Politicians and corporations know this but insist on treating locals as completely brainless.

Before we dispersed, a native of Flint, Michigan who now lives in the Mahoning Valley spoke. They pointed out that East Palestine could learn from the experiences of Flint residents. According to this speaker, Norfolk Southern is using quarterly accounting tricks to make it seem like they can’t afford to do better on safety. Such corporate and government tricks were a major problem in fighting for clean water in Flint, too.

In Flint’s case, the community organized, got the nation’s attention and kept fighting. The fight has been long, difficult, and costly. But our local community must do nothing less if we are to overcome these obstacles. A long road lies ahead; all we can decide is whether we will walk it alone or together.

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