A freight train whistles in the distance, and my heart skips a beat.
Ever since the train derailment and resulting chemical disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, three weeks ago, I’ve taken to listening to the sounds of trains passing through my small town every day. The train tracks are about a mile from my house — not visible from my office window, but easy to see if I walk down to the end of the street. Easier still if I drive anywhere in town; the tracks bisect streets and neighborhoods, and trains often block traffic for five to six minutes at a time as their seemingly endless chains of graffitied cargo carriers rattle past.
What’s on those cargo trains, in those earth-toned train cars? We know some of it is coal and oil, and some of them carry grain, but do any of them also contain vinyl chloride or other toxic chemicals? Could my little town in Washington state become the next East Palestine?
Could your town? Could all our towns?
Those are the questions that run through my head every time I hear a train whistle or the echo of metal wheels rattling on the tracks.
There are a lot of opportunities for potential disaster — and not a lot of information around to ease worried minds.
Eight years ago the then-mayor of our town set out to find out how many trains passed through here every day and what they carried. It wasn’t easy. The rail company wouldn’t tell him. He ended up parking by an intersection and counting them himself — 174 trains in a week, an average of one per hour.
He tracked how fast they traveled, too. The fastest roared through town at 54 miles per hour. Other trains — those moving around 35 miles per hour — slowed down because of regulations for carrying hazardous materials through residential areas.
I asked BNSF, the rail company that operates in our area, how many trains now pass through our town every day and how many carry hazardous chemicals. As of press time, the company hasn’t responded to my request for information.
To be fair, there’s not much indication that there would be an accident. A train did kill a pedestrian last year, and another one hit a pickup truck in 2019. Neither of those accidents resulted in a spill of any sort.
But what if they had? The train tracks pass by a national wildlife reserve full of rare birds and fish, multiple parks and schools, grocery stores, housing developments, apartment complexes, creeks and rivers (including the mighty Columbia between Oregon and Washington states), churches, restaurants, dentists and doctors’ office, veterinarians, and so much more… Go one town over, and the tracks pass by the notoriously polluting paper plant that helped inspire Earth Day activist Denis Hayes. One disaster in either town could devastate this community and its natural beauty.
Local and state legislators have worried about that possibility for years, especially after the Trump administration eased train-safety regulations in 2017:
2017 news coverage of the Trump administration rolling back railway safety policies put in place by Obama. pic.twitter.com/AkMOOK3ydc
— PatriotTakes 🇺🇸 (@patriottakes) February 24, 2023
Obviously we need trains to move the goods that keep our society flowing and growing. But we don’t need the oil that many of them carry. We don’t need all the grain, much of which goes toward feeding livestock rather than people. We don’t need chemicals that can destroy the environment, kill wildlife, and leave a toxic legacy for years to come. We do need regulations to keep it all safe, and we need to embrace the ongoing decarbonization that will make these trains less essential.
Until then, I may just lie awake at night listening to the trains rattling by and worrying about what could come next.
We’ve collected some essential reading about East Palestine and other disasters:
Human-rights lawyer Steven Donziger argues that strong laws against ecocide — the destruction of the natural environment — could have prevented the East Palestine disaster.
Trains have a reputation for low levels of greenhouse gas emissions compared to shipping by road or air, but that’s not the whole story. What they carry often creates its own emissions. After all it was the fracking boom, which drove a surge in crude-by-trail traffic that peaked nearly a decade ago, that put the phrase “bomb train” into common parlance.
And trains aren’t emissions-free. Writing for National Geographic, Jason Bittel shines a light on the many health hazards of living near railroads.
Carey Gillam points out that East Palestine is not an aberration: “Accidental releases — be they through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills — are happening on average, every two days.” On a related note, The Conversation analyzes crash data and reveals that trucks carrying hazardous materials have more frequent, deadlier accidents than trains.
But train disasters are just bigger. For NBC News, Evan Bush writes about the 1982 tanker-car spill in Livingston, Louisiana, and what that historical disaster suggests for the future of East Palestine.
The Wall Street Journal reminds us that communities around the country could feel effects from the crash, most notably as toxic soils are moved elsewhere. Meanwhile about 5,500 species in Ohio were killed by the spill, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
In The Times assigns some blame: “Wall Street caused the East Palestine crisis.” Antiplastics advocate Judith Enck has a different take: The disaster, she writes, “was a direct result of the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and plastic.”
Speaking of plastic, James Bruggers at Inside Climate News writes about why vinyl chloride and PVC are so bad for people and the planet.
Finally, as they warm up for the 2024 presidential race, Republicans and their media colleagues are trying to turn the East Palestine disaster into the latest culture war battlefield. Columbia Journalism Review calls this “empty politicization.”