by Emma Celeste Thornley
On February 3rd, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed by East Palestine, Ohio (Ebrahimji and Yan, 2023). 38 of its cargo-hauling cars jumped the rails, scattering its hazardous contents into the earth, air and groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would respond within a day; the Ohio National Guard would mobilize a day after that. By February 8th, the initial evacuation order issued to East Palestine and the immediate area would be lifted (Ebrahimji and Yan, 2023). As of March 17th, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine maintains that East Palestine is safe for inhabitation (Keller, 2023). Locals and EPA representatives disagree. Carcinogenic dioxides still permeate the earth by the initial spill sites at a density 100 times the legal limit (Perkins, 2023); 4.85 million gallons of toxic wastewater have been extracted from broader East Palestine in the month since the initial spill (Government of Ohio, 2023). Activists like Erin Brockovich, who previously uncovered a massive corporate coverup of water poisoning during her tenure as a paralegal at a law firm (Brokovich, 2023), warned that coverups and late-blooming dangers are likely to threaten the health of locals for years (Flesher, 2023).
Disasters like these are far from uncommon in the United States. The first seven weeks of 2023 saw 30 incidents reported by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters. The EPA performs, on average, 235 individual emergency responses to chemical spills a year (Gillam, 2023). Averaged out, across the United States, a chemical spill occurs once every two days (Bennett, 2023). Every spill, regardless of size or chemical composition, is dangerous. Injury and illness resulting from exposure can incite chronic or acute consequences (Gillam, 2023). In East Palestine, residents were flooded with vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, isobutylene ethylene glycol and ethylhexyl acrylate (Chow and Abou-Sabe). Vinyl Chloride is a colourless, flammable, carcinogenic gas that causes a range of neurological symptoms in those exposed. Butyl acrylate is similarly irritating, and triggers rashes and respiratory complications. The effects of long-term exposure to any one of these chemicals is unknown, let alone multiple (Chow and Abou-Sade, 2023). The issues emerging from this chemical spill will be further compounded by the EPA’s recent performance decrease, triggered in large part by budget slashes (Beitsch and Frazin, 2023).
Amnesty International has held that humans have a right to a safe environment (Amnesty International 2022). While often couched in climate change rhetoric, it is equally applicable to toxic exposure. It is well established that racialized and impoverished communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards (Johnston and Cushing, 2020) akin to the East Palestine spill. In recent memory, the predominantly Black communities of Flint, Michigan (Almasy and Ly, 2017) and Hayneville, Alabama (Alcindor, 2022) were respectively victimized by gross state misconduct in the wake of environmental contamination. In both cases, the contamination was preventable. Flint’s water-pipes were a known lead hazard (Almasy and Ly, 2017); Hayneville’s sewage systems were improperly operated (Alcindor, 2022). The case of East Palestine may seem, on its face, equally tragic but comparatively less insidious. Train derailments are accidents, not state failures. East Palestine is predominately white and conservative. As the state’s failures to respond to the EasPalestine crisis mounted, Trump’s campaign utilized East Palestine’s demographics to accuse the present administration of “woke” virtue signalling (Pilkington, 2023).
In reality, Trump’s administration tabled policy exposing countless locales to industrial disaster, and all American citizens in marginalized social groups are resultantly at risk of similar disasters. The EPA’s 2020 budget reduction was executed by Trump; the already overwhelmed federal branch lost about half of its funding (Beitsch and Frazin, 2023). This drastic rollback on government funding to emergency response and toxic waste management research was further compounded by the former administration’s proverbial derailing of train safety regulations (Levin, 2023). The federal regulations expunged from practice included reducing braking system standards and safety audits of railroads (Levin, 2023). While preliminary reports suggest the East Palestine derailment was not a direct result of Trump’s regulation policy (Kessler, 2023), it is a warning as to what disasters may loom on the American horizon. In cases where the disaster releases toxic chemicals into the environment, as was the case in East Palestine, the legacy of Trump’s rollbacks may have catastrophic consequences. A grand total of 100 environmental rules were repealed, designed to protect American air, drinking water, wildlife and urban infrastructure (Popovich, Albeck-Ripka and Pierre-Louis, 2021). The EPA is subsequently facing stacking disasters with only a fraction of its resources.
Political science scholarship has long held that natural disasters are made by the state (O’Lear, 2022). Food shortages are exacerbated by global food systems into famines (International Rescue Committee, 2022); storms like Hurricane Katrina turn to deadly floods when institutions fail to maintain storm levees (Pruitt, 2020). Our human rights to life, security of person and adequate standard of living are increasingly consolidating with labour and environmental rights. When states fail to recognize the overlap between these spheres of human life, or otherwise ignore them for profit margins, disastrous consequences emerge. The circumstances surrounding East Palestine’s spill are a stark reminder that attaining any one of these rights is contingent upon pursuit of the others.
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