While the town of East Palestine, Ohio is dealing with the fallout of dangerous chemicals being released into the air following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern-owned train, a lesser known train derailment occurred near Houston, Texas just 10 days later, killing a driver and threatening to poison the environment. The train, which is operated by Union Pacific, collided with an 18-wheeler and derailed 21 train cars. While police are being told by Union Pacific that there aren’t any “major chemicals to be concerned about”, the one thing that is known for certain is that this will hardly be the last train derailment of its kind, and the next time could have even more deadly consequences. In 2021, there were more than 1,000 cases of trains derailing across the country, and so far more than a dozen have been reported in the year 2023 alone. This comes after the Biden administration, Congress and railroad companies teamed up to crush railroad workers’ efforts at organizing to improve worker safety last year, even after workers repeatedly warned they were being spread too thin.
Train derailment threatens local environment
Early in the morning of February 13, at around 7:25 am, a Union Pacific train collided with an 18-wheeler crossing a set of train tracks which had no railroad crossing arms or stop lights. The crash, which occurred between the Texas towns of Splendora and Cleveland, caused 21 train cars to be derailed along with about 15 passenger vehicles. The 18-wheeler, which was carrying gallons of diesel and oil, was dragged half-a-mile down the tracks and its driver was killed. A Union Pacific hazardous materials team quickly appeared on the scene to clean up some of the materials that were released, including an estimated 100 gallons of diesel. Others were there to monitor the air quality, as the train was known to be carrying hazardous chemicals. According to Splendora Police Department Lt. Troy Teller, “From what we’re being told and shown, there’s no major chemicals to be concerned about. It’s more so household chemicals on board for retail purposes. It’s not a large quantity from what we’re being told.” Lt. Teller was of course repeating what he was being told by Union Pacific representatives. Given Union Pacific’s history of funding for blocking progressive climate policy proposals, however, there’s no reason to take their word at face-value.
Railroad merger increases chances of more derailments
The train derailment near Houston comes at the same time a federal study of a proposed $27 billion merger between two major North American railway companies, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, was completed. If this merger were to go through it would create the first direct route from Alberta, Canada’s bitumen oil sand mines to heavy crude refineries in Port Arthur on the Texas coast. While the federal study seeks to downplay the environmental impact of this merger, the increase in the amount of oil sands being shipped to the Texas Coast would undoubtedly negatively affect the health of residents and increase carbon emissions. Furthermore, it would lead to an additional 8 trains passing through the Houston area each day, increasing the likelihood of more derailments of train cars carrying toxic and hazardous materials.
Biden White House and Railroad companies unite to crush unions
That these trains are detailing at such an alarming rate should come as a surprise to no one, least of all the railroad companies themselves. Railroad workers have repeatedly warned of the dangers of being spread too thin and demanded better pay and sick leave. According to Bloomberg, “Railroads have slashed labor and other costs to bolster profits in recent years, and have been fiercely opposed to adding paid sick time that would require them to hire more staff.” The railroad industry has had a difficult time hiring and retaining employees due to its own policies including furloughing staff during downturns, forcing remaining workers to work long, grueling hours and imposing harsh attendance policies which leave workers who fall sick with limited options. These options include using one of their personal leave days, going into work while ill, or calling into work at risk of being fired.
It was these conditions that led to railroad workers threatening to strike last year after a tentative agreement was reached last September between rail carriers and some unions that included no sick leave despite the demand for 15. Four unions voted to reject it, and it appeared for a time that workers could go on strike on December 9. Congress, however, stepped in to put a stop to this, using its power to impose the contract on a dozen unions representing over 115,000 workers. The Senate failed to pass an additional measure proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders that included 7 days of sick leave (8 less than what was demanded), and despite this President Joe Biden signed the legislation into law on December 2nd. The signing of this law effectively made any strike by railroad workers illegal, meaning a potential strike could be crushed by the state and strikers could be attacked by police and arrested. Once again, Biden has shown that, contrary to his claim to be “the most pro-union president” in history, he stands with corporate bosses against the people.
As long as railways are run by these corner-cutting private companies who put corporate profit over the needs of workers and the environment, catastrophes such as those in East Palestine and Houston will continue to happen. The safety of workers, the supply chain and the ability to have clean air, soil and water will all continue to be endangered. In a socialist society, the railways would be nationalized and the profit motive would be eliminated. Railroads would be operated in a way that would put the interests of the people, the environment and workers above the bottom line of corporate CEOs.