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Both parties are to blame for the train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but right now the people of East Palestine should be at the heart of everyone’s concern.

On his Fox News show Monday evening, Tucker Carlson interviewed Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, about the unfolding disaster that began when a Norfolk Southern Railway train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a small town on the border with Pennsylvania. Carlson said Democrats “talk a lot about the environment and environmental racism, but this seems like an actual environmental disaster,” adding: “And I don’t detect any urgency from the EPA or Washington at all. Is it because these are not their voters?”

Vance replied: “I think that’s a big part of it. I think that the entire country, the media complex, the leaders of this country, have decided to disregard the people of East Palestine.”

Carlson and Vance were not so subtly making the disaster the fault of Democrats, even though the facts leading up to the derailment and the subsequent fire show the responsibility isn’t so easily divided between red and blue.

After the Feb. 3 derailment, and three days later a controlled burn that Norfolk Southern carried out to avoid an explosion’s releasing toxins into the air and water, there was relative silence on both sides of the aisle. Vance himself didn’t release a statement until 10 days later.?The same goes for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Carlson and Vance were making the disaster the fault of Democrats, even though the facts leading up to the derailment show the responsibility isn’t so easily divided between red and blue.

Now residents are complaining of burning eyes, labored breathing, rashes and migraine headaches, and thousands of fish are dead. It’s becoming clear this disaster was a result of, yes, politics but also a total and complete capitalistic systemic failure — and partisan mudslinging isn’t going to shield people from future medical and economic devastation.

Before we get to the right-wing dishonesty of it all, let’s start with this truth: President Joe Biden’s administration has been slow to deal with the fallout of the derailment of 11 train cars carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride (a gas which is used to make plastic), in the middle of a small, poor town. Buttigieg’s first official statement (made Monday on Twitter) said, “I continue to be concerned,” and he reassured residents that EPA air quality screenings in East Palestine homes had at that point found “no detections” of toxins.?

But how did the train derail, and why? For that, we need to go back to former President Donald?Trump’s administration, which,?in 2017, caved to lobbyists representing the billion-dollar railway companies and weakened Obama-era rules governing trains transporting hazardous materials. As explained by the trade publication Railway Age, in 2015, the Transportation Department mandated that trains “meeting the definition of a 'HHFUT' (high-hazard flammable unit train), defined as 'a single train with 70 or more tank cars loaded with Class 3 flammable liquids,' ... must be operated with an ECP braking system by Jan. 1, 2021, or reduce maximum speed to 30 mph.”

ECP, or electronically controlled pneumatic, brakes are the new technology meant to replace the Civil War-era brakes with which many trains were still outfitted. But, as Railway Age points out, the Association of American Railroads complained about how much replacing brakes would cost and sought to repeal the rule. And Trump gave those railroad lobbyists their way.

But blame for the disaster can’t be laid solely at Trump’s feet. As The Lever pointed out last week, “the Biden administration has not moved to reinstate the brake rule or expand the kinds of trains subjected to tougher safety regulations.” That lack of action, coupled with Biden’s decision to block a proposed strike by railroad workers who wanted paid sick leave and other important workplace improvements, presents the image of a leader who, despite his professed love of trains, isn’t particularly focused on railway safety.

Before we get to the dishonesty, let’s start with this truth: President Joe Biden’s administration has been slow to deal with the fallout of 10 train cars’ derailing in the middle of a small, poor town.

Yet the attempt by Republicans to frame themselves as the ones who are keenly concerned about environmental catastrophe and the media trying to cover it is absurd.?

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., tweeted this week: “East Palestine, Ohio is undergoing an ecological disaster bc authorities blew up the train derailment cars carrying hazardous chemicals and press are being arrested for trying to tell the story. Oh but UFO’s! What is going on?” (NewsNation reporter Evan Peters was arrested covering a news conference about the train derailment featuring?Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. The state’s attorney general dismissed the criminal charges Wednesday.)

Never mind the fact that Greene carried a damn balloon around the halls of the U.S. Capitol the day of last week’s State of the Union address, a stunt she carried out to accuse Biden of having waited too long to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon that crossed over the country.

The quick heel-turn to environmental savior and critic of the attention the balloon got is a little too hypocritical, even by her standards.?

But other loyal right-wing soldiers continue to follow Vance and Greene in blaming Democrats alone for the corporate greed and deregulation that have gotten boosts from both parties.?

Conservative commentator Stew Peters tweeted Monday: “East Palestine, OH is the most catastrophic event covered up in recent history. The toxicity of these chemicals is causing animals to die hundreds of miles away. It’s in the air, water and soil. EPA: ‘it’s safe’. Your ‘government’ is killing you.” On Thursday, that tweet had more than 18,000 retweets. And right-wing media personality Collin Rugg wrote: “No protests. No Greta. No Biden. No AOC. No Al Gore. Where are the so-called environmentalists for East Palestine?” invoking many of the figures who’ve committed their lives to protecting the environment, even when it hasn't been politically expedient.

Corporate greed and deregulation have gotten boosts from both parties.

But those criticisms focus only on government actors. Chief Steve Szekely with Mahoning County Hazmat told a Youngstown, Ohio, television station that when he arrived at the scene of the derailment, it was “like the doors of hell were open,” adding, “I mean, it was hot and the flames were shooting up into the air at least 100 feet.” He said that no manifest of the train’s contents was available and that because of that “we didn’t know what chemicals there were,” adding: “But once on the scene, we can smell. You can smell it in the air that there was something.” The train’s manifest, which wasn’t made public until nine days later, revealed that vinyl chloride wasn’t the only hazardous material on board.?

There were also?butyl acrylate, which can irritate and burn the skin and eyes, irritate the nose, throat and lungs and cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and vomiting;?ethylene glycol monobutyl ether,?which can cause drowsiness, lethargy, headache, nausea, convulsions and respiratory and gastrointestinal irritation; ethyl acrylate,?a carcinogen that can affect the nervous system;?and isobutylene,?which can cause dizziness, drowsiness and unconsciousness.

The train’s manifest, which wasn’t made public until nine days later, revealed that vinyl chloride wasn’t the only hazardous material on board.

The law didn’t require Norfolk Southern to designate the train as a high-hazard train, in part because most of the cars weren’t carrying hazardous material, a loophole that?DeWine rightly called “absurd.”?But before the manifest was made public, East Palestine resident Jason Trosky had this to say about Norfolk Southern to?The?American Prospect: “A $56 billion corporation knows where every one of its assets is at any given time.”?He’s absolutely right.?The company should have been aware of what was on the train and immediately made its contents clear to people such as Szekely who arrived on the scene.

But you don’t hear the Carlsons, Vances and Greenes of the world squawking about the need to increase corporate regulation and responsibility.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but right now the people of East Palestine should be at the heart of everyone’s concern as they battle what could be the early stages of lifelong illnesses and the destruction of their way of life. This is a moment that calls for political unity. It’s not an occasion to try to own the libs, but in absence of leadership or tangible wins, it’s all conservatives have.

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