INDIGNITY VOL. 3, No. 16: A noxious cloud.


INDIGNITY VOL. 3, No. 16: A noxious cloud.

The Indignity Morning Podcast

Indignity Morning Podcast No. 10: The ambient brutality of everyday life.
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Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 6, 2023 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video released by the NTSB. Public Domain via Wikipedia.

How Did the East Palestine Train Crash Get So Toxic?

A BAD THING happened in East Palestine, Ohio, two weekends ago. It was so obviously bad that it became a puzzle: a Norfolk Southern freight train, hauling various noxious chemicals, derailed Friday night, caught on fire, and stayed on fire through the weekend and beyond, yet all this drew relative indifference from national media.

The national media seemed to be too busy chasing the alleged Chinese spy balloon across the country to focus on the spectacle of tankers full of vinyl chloride going up in a hideous black plume of smoke, day after day, leaving a spreading spot like an ink stain on the clouds. Residents were ordered to evacuate; officials warned that the tankers might explode; Republicans denounced the Biden administration's passivity about  the balloon.

Gradually, despite the balloon, consciousness of the news has been seeping into online discussion. Along the way, the limited available facts have broken down into scary and unhealthy informational byproducts. People are tweeting and sharing terrifying and absurd claims: that this was an unprecedented and epochal disaster, that it's a Midwestern Chernobyl, that it's a domestic Bhopal, that the entire Ohio River watershed is poisoned. Tweets from accounts with prominent antivax or other conspiracist connections are getting passed along by people who normally would know better.

This situation, in some quarters, seems to be more alarming than the chemical disaster itself. Will Stancil, a busy liberal tweeter, complained that the subject of East Palestine was attracting left and right extremists alike, adding:

It's uncomfortable but it really feels like the idea of shadowy capitalists inflicting a terrible industrial accident and coverup on a small all-white rural town with a cinematic name fits the herrenvolkish, heartland-versus-globalists worldview both extremes occasionally share

If bad ideas are taking over, though, what are they taking over from? So far, no one in a position of authority has offered a coherent yet reassuring account of conditions in East Palestine. It's clearly nothing like Chernobyl, but what is it?

Take away "shadowy" from "capitalists" and replace "coverup" with "lack of information" and Stancil's cartoon of conspiracism becomes the ordinary available facts. Norfolk Southern is part of a freight rail industry that has been in the news for running operations as cheaply as possible and stretching its work force as thin as it can, so it can divert that money to stock buybacks. And now it has, in fact, inflicted a terrible industrial accident on a small town.

Are people getting too carried away about this? No one died, after all. No human beings, anyway. (Not yet, at least) But the allegedly Chinese balloon didn’t kill anyone, either.

The story of the allegedly Chinese balloon, though, had a partisan political structure driving it. Politicians had incentives to participate in it. The allegedly Chinese balloon was a sign of the Biden administration's weakness in the face of China's encroachment on our superpower prerogatives. Or it was a sign of Republican insincerity and hypocrisy: Donald Trump had balloon incursions, too! We shot it down, to prove how serious we could be about it. Then we shot some more things down. Maybe they were also balloons.

In Ohio, nobody seemed to feel that sort of pressure to show they were doing anything. Not putting out the fire, not cleaning it up, certainly not taking responsibility or demanding accountability for it. The EPA offered vague-sounding reassurances that the danger was gone. The people on the scene said it still smelled terrible. The Biden administration said more or less nothing, day after day.

Environmental And Health Concerns Grow In East Palestine, Ohio After Derailment Of Train Cars Containing Hazardous Material. FEBRUARY 14: Water is pumped into a creek for aeration on February 14, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. A train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed on February 3, releasing toxic fumes and forcing evacuation of residents. (Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

This doesn't sit well with the public. Americans tend to hold a folk belief that people aren't allowed to just go around dumping poison in your air and your water. This isn't true, but it still informs people's outlook. We passed laws against pollution, didn't we? When a trainload of hazardous chemicals spills and burns where people live, it seems only fair and reasonable to expect someone to make it better.

Yet the job of talking about East Palestine has fallen to the cranks and the scammers. The Biden administration said the last thing it wanted to say about freight railroads in December, when with the help of the Democratic majority in the last Congress, it forced the rail workers to accept a labor contract they didn't want. The chance to pick a fight with Norfolk Southern about how it runs its operations went by.

Now the failures of the freight industry are like Covid in Biden's portfolio: the administration decided it couldn't tolerate the risk of more economic disruption and inflation, and so it declared things were back to normal. If normalcy means a few hundred thousand more deaths or an uncontrolled toxic plume, so be it. There's no reversing the message that everything is OK.

And as with Covid, there's no Republican interest in promoting the opposing view. The Republican Party wants businesses open and workers ordered back on the job; even in their most disingenuous point-scoring mood, they don't really want to rally the public against pollution, profiteering, or industrial accidents. For a national press trained to process every event as inter-party competition, this has sapped the energy from the East Palestine story. How serious can it be, if nobody's trying to pick the winners and the losers?

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