The environmental awakening of Tucker Carlson
On February 3, a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in Ohio near the small town of East Palestine. The train was carrying several toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a highly toxic and flammable gas used to make plastic. The derailment resulted in a massive fire, unleashing a thick plume of smoke over the town. Residents who lived near the crash site were ordered to evacuate. A few days later, fearing another explosion, authorities drained the tankers of the chemicals and burned them off in a trench.
While residents have been allowed to return to their homes, there are ongoing concerns about the safety of their air, soil, and water.
Notably, unlike many environmental issues, the train crash has become an issue of concern across the political spectrum. Far-right pundit Tucker Carlson devoted a segment to the derailment on his Fox News show Monday night. He expressed concern that the EPA was not aggressive enough in exercising its regulatory authority to protect residents:
[T]hose clouds of toxic smoke flew up and out and that toxic smoke almost immediately began killing animals. Dead fish washed up on shore. As one hazardous material specialist put it, we basically nuked the town with chemicals.
So, then a representative from the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, arrived to restore calm. Yes, an EPA spokesman explained chemicals from the derailed train did enter the local watershed and yes, they did kill fish, but the drinking water supply remains totally safe.
According to Carlson, the EPA is "not too concerned" about the incident because there is no connection to climate change and, therefore, it can not be used "to sell solar panels." Further, Carlson claims the Biden administration is uninterested because "Donald Trump got over 71 percent of the vote in the county in the last presidential election."
There is no evidence to support Carlson's conspiracy theories. But it is a useful reminder that environmental disasters — whether they are the result of a train derailment or climate change — impact everyone, regardless of their political views.
Carlson went on to suggest that the EPA is under-resourced. He favorably quoted the Washington Post's reporting that "[f]or more than two decades, the EPA has not been resourced or organized to secure the nation's water and wastewater sector against physical and cyber threats." Fox News' Sean Hannity has expressed similar sentiments, arguing that "[t]he people in your neighboring community deserve to know that the government is on top of this, so that they can raise their children in an environment that is safe, with clean water and clean air."
But it's not enough to feign concern. What would it actually take for the federal government to be "on top of this?" What would need to happen to minimize the risk of train derailments and protect communities from environmental disasters?
Carlson and Hannity may not like the answer. It involves imposing regulations — even when they are opposed by private industry — and reining in corporate greed.
Corporate lobbying thwarts safety regulations
Although the Norfolk Southern train in Ohio caused a days-long fire and released toxic fumes, it was not classified as a “high-hazard flammable train.” This is because rail companies in the United States have vehemently opposed federal safety initiatives for years, especially when it comes to the transport of hazardous materials.
In 2014, following a series of derailments and explosions, the Obama administration weighed new rules for trains carrying hazardous materials. But after caving to mounting pressure from major railroads, “the final measure ended up narrowly focused on the transport of crude oil and exempting trains carrying many other combustible materials, including the chemical involved in this weekend’s disaster,” The Lever reports.
One of the new rules that made it through was the use of new brakes by 2021. Known as modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems, these brakes stop trains faster than the Civil War-era braking systems that the railroad industry currently uses. Specifically, ECP brakes “decrease the chances of a catastrophic pileup, reduce the number of punctured cars in an accident, [and] allow train operators to stop faster if there was an obstacle on the tracks.”
Major railroads like Norfolk Southern had previously extolled the benefits of ECP brakes. In 2007, Norfolk Southern was the first railway to operate an ECP brake-equipped train. The railroad congratulated itself for making “railroad history” and praised ECP brakes for the “potential to reduce train stopping distances by as much as 60 percent over conventional air brake systems.” A Norfolk Southern executive told investors that the company "is on the cutting edge with respect to developing this technology.”
But after the ECP brake mandate was introduced, major railroads objected to the rule. “The [Department of Transportation] couldn’t make a safety case for ECP but forged ahead anyway,” Edward R. Hamberger, the president of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s main lobbying group, said. “I have a hard time believing the determination to impose ECP brakes is anything but a rash rush to judgment.”
In 2017, industry groups succeeded in encouraging the Trump administration to repeal the ECP brake rule.
“Following a thorough, independent, evidence-based evaluation of ECP brake systems, there was only one possible conclusion: The ECP brake mandate was not justified and must be repealed,” the AAR said in a statement. According to Reuters, “the most forceful lobbying against ECP brakes” came from AAR.
A year later, the Associated Press found that the Trump administration miscalculated the benefits of ECP brakes when rolling back the rule. The Department of Transportation (DOT) acknowledged the mistake but insisted that “in all scenarios costs still outweigh benefits.” Today, the Biden administration has yet to “reinstate the brake rule or expand the kinds of trains subjected to tougher safety regulations.”
In 2020, the Trump administration also authorized the transport of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) by rail–reversing a longstanding federal policy. According to one environmental group, “it would only take 22 tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb.” Under federal guidelines, everyone within a one-mile radius of an accident involving LNG is advised to evacuate. But in a densely populated city, this recommendation is not “realistic.” One proposal for an LNG port in New Jersey, for example, would have trains carrying flammable materials travel along Norfolk Southern rail lines and pass through Philadelphia neighborhoods.
In 2021, the DOT, under the Biden administration, proposed to suspend the LNG rule, and announced that it would be releasing a new rule. But the suspension and the new rule have been “delayed twice,” The Guardian reports. An expert told the Guardian that the rule is “supposed to be final in March.”
Rail companies, who applauded the Trump-era LNG rule, have downplayed the consequences of an LNG accident, arguing that “Rail is the responsible choice for moving hazmat and LNG.” But there isn’t much research backing up this claim. “Federal safety and environmental studies on the impact of LNG rail transport — the kind that are typically carried out before the implementation of new regulations — have not yet been conducted,” StateImpact Pennsylvania reports.
Corporate greed trumps safety
Freight rail has also become more dangerous because of fundamental changes to how companies like Norfolk Southern operate. Over the last five years, "22% of the jobs at railroads Union Pacific, CSX, and Norfolk Southern have been eliminated." Jobs were slashed as part of a broader cost-cutting system called "Precision Scheduled Railroading" that was pioneered by CSX and later implemented by Norfolk Southern and others. The system also involved increasing speeds and lengthening trains — with some trains stretching more than two miles.
There has also been a push to reduce the amount of time that the trains are not in motion, which means "the amount of time carmen have to inspect each car in a train has been reduced by more than half — from three minutes to just 60 seconds." The derailment in East Palestine was reportedly due to a "mechanical issue with a rail car axle."
Unions representing freight rail workers have warned for years that "with the stakes so high any time a train derails, the new system is risky."
Norfolk Southern has taken the higher profits from Precision Scheduled Railroading and used it to repurchase shares of its own stock — a practice that benefits executives and investors by increasing the price. In March 2022, Norfolk Southern announced a plan to spend $10 billion on stock buybacks. In 2021, Norfolk Southern CEO James A. Squires received $14 million in total compensation. About $9 million of Squires' compensation was paid in stock awards and options — assets that will likely increase in value as Norfolk Southern repurchases its shares.