It Is Happening Again

How many times have we seen this drama play out in the last several decades? Every presidential administration wants to fix America’s “crumbling infrastructure” until they discover the business interests profiting from disrepair.

Industrial toxicity without industrial employment

Still from footage from the National Transportation Safety Board.

First there was the fire, the smoke billowing infernally into the Appalachian night. It just kept burning. Days of insatiable flame. A black pillar of fumes took up residence above the town like an inert tornado. At its heart, we learned, was the corpse of a train, fifty cars off the rails. Some of them, it was said, were carrying toxic materials. The train had almost reached its destination, the Norfolk Southern freight yard in Conway, Pennsylvania, on the evening of February 3, but catastrophe struck just across the state line. Most accidents happen close to home—in East Palestine, Ohio, in this case, a name that hearkened to a different site of devastation a world away.

Years of Cassandran warnings about the escalating risk of major rail accidents now resound with disturbing clarity. Keen-eyed observers remembered that in 2017, industry lobbying sunk a federal regulatory initiative to mandate electronic braking systems on rail cars carrying hazardous and flammable materials. (“The cost-benefit analyses are not sufficient,” the Department of Transportation explained.) The journalist Aaron Gordon opened his 2021 examination of defective railroad safety protocols with a story about a freight train derailment four years earlier in Pennsylvania, which resulted in the evacuation of the entire town of Hyndman. Thirty-three cars came off the rails, fifteen of which carried hazardous material. Only three leaked or caught fire. “As scary as the derailment in Hyndman was,” Gordon warned, “it could have been much worse.” Well, now we know.

Rail worker unions saw it coming too. As Gordon documented, derailments of trains with risky payloads have been mounting for some time––341 trains, including 24 freight trains, derailed in 2019. This spate of accidents is the consequence of “Precision Scheduled Railroading,” bureaucratese for a bog-standard cost- and corner-cutting scheme. Freight trains are now longer than ever, a metastasis mirrored across the logistics industry, from colossal container ships like the one that got stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021 to the 91,000-pound mega-trucks that lobbyists are currently cajoling Congress to allow onto interstates. These increasingly elaborate freight trains are inspected less frequently and by fewer overworked workers, a disastrous combination of upsizing and downsizing: Norfolk Southern and other corporations claim that under many circumstances their trains can run safely with only a single crewmember in the locomotive cab.

Safety concerns related to understaffing were central to last year’s showdown between industry unions and employers, which nearly resulted in a massive rail strike before Joe Biden and Congress intervened on behalf of the carriers, imposing an agreement that permitted carrier-by-carrier negotiations on additional staffing cutbacks. In the weeks leading up to the rail unions’ strike deadline in December, the media and the Biden administration alike downplayed the long-term risk of lax safety standards, instead emphasizing the short-term safety risks that a hypothetical strike would present. The business press reported breathlessly on the safety measures mandated by federal strike contingency planning. Carriers would stop transporting chemicals ninety-six hours before the strike deadline, so as to minimize the risk that anything hazardous would be left stranded on the rails when workers walked off the job. Whether the carriers took such a fastidious approach to the hazards of normal day-to-day operations was a question that excited considerably less curiosity.

The Biden administration’s pusillanimous decision to side with the rail corporations—half-hearted chastisement on the issue of sick leave notwithstanding—reverberated in the aftermath of the East Palestine derailment. Biden himself has remained silent. It took ten days for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to muster a single tweet on the subject, his only public statement to date. In some ways Buttigieg’s combination of reticence and inaction feels like a bizarre replay of his pathetic response to the Southwest Airlines meltdown in late December—a lower-stakes transportation crisis, to be sure, but one in which the former McKinsey consultant’s demonstrable unwillingness to confront corporate power similarly cheapened his display of concern for those affected. How many times have we seen this drama play out in the last several decades? Every presidential administration wants to fix America’s “crumbling infrastructure” until they discover the business interests profiting from disrepair.

The logistics catastrophe soon became an environmental one. Authorities ordered an initial evacuation on February 4 after toxic runoff from the train cars was detected in nearby streams. The evacuation order widened to a one-by-two mile area on February 6. As the fire kept burning, Norfolk Southern officials announced that the only way to be sure of preventing an explosion was to carefully release and burn the vinyl chloride stored in the most troublesome tankers. In the afternoon of February 6, with the surrounding area depopulated, company officials disburdened five cars of their vinyl chloride load and set it on fire.

Then the animals started dying. This wasn’t exactly a surprise: vinyl chloride, the precursor to PVC, is a ubiquitous industrial material, but it is highly toxic, linked in humans to a variety of cancers and diseases of the lungs and liver. But that didn’t make it any less unsettling to learn that some thirty-five hundred fish had perished, as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources disclosed on February 8. Scientists expressed special concern for a creature appropriately named the hellbender, a highly endangered salamander that has been the focus of population restoration efforts in Ohio in recent years. Local news publicized a variety of additional troubling anecdotes in the days that followed. A registered foxkeeper living just outside the evacuation zone reported that one of his foxes had died since the derailment, and the rest were sick and acting abnormally. A woman in a town a full ten miles away from East Palestine said that all of her chickens—five hens and a rooster—perished shortly after the controlled burn. Her eyes watered when she went outside, she said, and her neighbors reported a chlorine smell in the air. On February 13, information released by Norfolk Southern revealed that there were more toxic chemicals on board the train than officials had initially reported, including ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, isobutylene, and ethyhexyl acrylate, which can cause burning and irritation upon exposure to the skin, eyes, nose, and throat.

At first it seemed impossible to speak about the unfolding catastrophe except as a repetition, an echo of that unholy litany: Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl. Objections to such comparisons are easy to come up with. The chemical leak at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, India killed over two thousand people more or less immediately, and as many as 16,000 in the long run. To date there have been no human deaths associated with the East Palestine crash. And precisely because they were nuclear accidents, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl left their surroundings contaminated for years, even decades. Vinyl chloride may be toxic, but it isn’t nuclear waste, and no one believes it will still be risky to venture into East Palestine in 2035.

“We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open,” remarked Youngstown firefighter and hazmat specialist Sil Caggiano, in an instantly viral local news clip. The apparent contradiction here—nuking with chemicals—is worth taking seriously. From the moment the first bombs were dropped, “nuclear” has never just meant nuclear in the American vernacular. Instead it connotes the promise of a godlike technological mastery, the capacity for apocalyptic destruction, and a certain sort of hubris: the sorcerer’s apprentice in possession of forces he does not fully understand and can’t fully control. To “nuke,” metaphorically, is to decide to unleash the full destructive powers placed at our disposal by modern science with less than full heed paid to the ultimate consequences. In this sense, I think that it is perhaps defensible to say that Norfolk Southern nuked East Palestine with chemicals.

By this definition, much of the state of Ohio has been getting nuked for a very long time—far longer than nuclear weapons have been around. I don’t know a single Ohioan from a working-class family who doesn’t live with a recognition of the quotidian toxicity to which industrial capitalism continues to subject many of the state’s residents. Quietly, unspectacularly, toxic chemicals—benzenes and chlorobiphenyls, heavy metals and polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, hazardous compounds of fluorides, sulphides, and oxides—have for over a century been leaking steadily out of tankers and pipelines and mines and barrels and factories and into Ohioan soil, water, and bodies. Watching the news from East Palestine the last few weeks, I was reminded of the outro to Warren Zevon’s 1987 song “The Factory,” narrated by a hard-luck Rust Belt laborer: “Kickin’ asbestos in the factory; punchin’ out Chryslers in the factory; breathin’ that plastic in the factory; makin’ polyvinyl chloride in the factory.”

I was also reminded of a moment with my grandfather in a nursing home near Cleveland, shortly before his death from a rare neurodegenerative disease called multiple system atrophy. Formerly known as Shy-Drager syndrome, MSA is strongly associated with exposure to environmental toxins, but my grandfather was a traveling salesman, not a factory worker, so its etiology in his case remained mysterious. Somehow my aunt had obtained a book of photographs of the working-class Cleveland neighborhood where he grew up in the 1920s, hoping that it would help lubricate his memory. It did: flipping through the book, he lit upon an image of a paint factory and told us that he lived right down the block. I remember making eye contact with my mother, a public health nurse. Was this the answer we had been searching for all along?

We’ll never know for sure. So few people do. In the coming decades, people in the East Palestine area will develop all sorts of ailments, syndromes, cancers. That’s what happens to bodies in the natural course of things. But some of them will wonder, and it is hard to say that they will be wrong to do so. This is the consequence of a life lived in the shadow of the infrastructure of the US chemical industry: you could be murdered and not even know it.

It is dislocating, of course, to contemplate the prospect of a person getting killed by a factory that has not existed for decades. In a way the East Palestine disaster replicates the twisted, Möbius-strip temporality of toxic exposure in the body on a societal scale. The heyday of industry in Ohio, as everyone knows, is long gone, for better and for worse. Every Clevelander has heard the story of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969—itself the last, and by no means the worst, in a cyclical series of conflagrations that stretched back nearly to the Civil War. The ’69 fire became a cause célèbre in the early years of the environmental movement. The river’s eventual cleanup, however, was due not only to the initiative of local and federal policymakers, but also to the evacuation of heavy industry from the Cleveland area and from Ohio more generally—a process already well underway by the time of the last Cuyahoga fire.

Pockets of Northeast Ohio have managed to weather the transition alright. In my time I have enjoyed many bottles of Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Burning River Pale Ale, a sly nod to the city’s progression from one economic base to another. But elsewhere—especially in the greater Youngstown area, which includes East Palestine—it is tempting to fondly regard the burning river as a symbol of the good old days. The tragedy is that the environmental and physiological hazards of heavy industry turn out to be much harder to leave in the past than the jobs they once brought with them. “The Cuyahoga Is Still Burning,” declared a 2008 editorial in Environmental Health Perspectives, reporting on persistently elevated levels of viruses, bacteria, and parasites, not to mention dangerous chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). And all over the state, chemicals are still finding new ways into the water. The derailment catastrophe underscores the cruel fate to which the hinterland of an increasingly automated and geographically dispersed chemical industry has been condemned: industrial toxicity without industrial employment.

The weirdest echoes were yet to come. More than a week after the crash, CNN discovered that some East Palestine residents had served as extras in the recent Netflix film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise—specifically while filming the novel’s “Airborne Toxic Event” sequence, in which an errant rail car spills chemicals that produce a noxious black cloud over a midwestern town. Within the online discussions I’d been following about the derailment, White Noise had already become a common reference point, which made the revelation that the town itself was involved in the making of the film even uncannier. The coincidence cinched the feeling that the situation was somehow science-fictional. (Here one repetition was embedded within another, within another. The Three Mile Island meltdown itself came just twelve days after Columbia Pictures released The China Syndrome, a paranoid thriller about a nuclear power plant that covers up the fact that its reactor components nearly melted into the ground and tunneled “all the way to China.” That same year, Andrei Tarkovsky completed his masterpiece Stalker, which viewers often mistakenly believe to have been filmed after Chernobyl. It is remarkable how closely the film’s setting—a mysterious and perilous “Zone” navigated illicitly by the titular guide—mirrors the Exclusion Zone created seven years later in Ukraine.)

In the case of East Palestine, the feeling of science-fictionality derives not only from the brute fact of the chemical spill but rather from the unnervingly cinematic beats that the government response seemed to follow. The evacuation order was lifted on February 8, dying chickens notwithstanding. A reporter, Evan Lambert, was arrested for trespassing during Governor Mike DeWine’s press conference announcing the change in guidance. The police said, practically begging eyes to roll, that Lambert was being too loud during his live broadcast. It was difficult not to feel that we had indeed entered DeLillo territory: simulation, managed perception, hyperreality. In White Noise, characterizing the disaster, DeLillo’s officials move from euphemism—a “feathery plume”—to more honest description—a “black billowing cloud”—to the famous bit of Orwellian circumlocution they finally settle upon. Then the protagonist discovers that the evacuation is being conducted by a government agency called SIMUVAC, which normally specializes in “simulated evacuations,” even though this particular evacuation is very much real—but that’s exactly what they’d say during a simulated evacuation, too. Right?

Biden’s continued silence certainly didn’t help quell the sense that someone was hiding something. Was the Ohio state government downplaying the severity of the incident out of deference to Norfolk Southern? Was Biden trying to save face after ramming through the carrier-friendly collective bargaining agreement? Were the authorities everywhere just trying to keep their subjects’ spirits up? Or was something altogether more sinister transpiring, just out of view? In any case, the rush to bring people home felt like an inside-out replay of the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the government fakes a train crash-cum-chemical spill in order to evacuate the area where aliens are about to land. Which made it all the more surreal when, while the East Palestine crisis was unfolding, the government began to shoot down a series of unidentified flying objects across the continent. What the actual fuck was happening? Representative Cliff Bentz (R-OR), for one, wanted answers: “UFO’s in the sky being shot down. Train derailed in Ohio spilling who knows how much hazardous material into East Palestine. And not a peep from our President. Not a single word.”

Eventually a consensus congealed in the right-wing media, which held that Biden was manufacturing the UFO hullabaloo to distract from the events in East Palestine. “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,” tweeted Jewish space laser expert and presumptive 2024 GOP vice-presidential frontrunner Marjorie Taylor Greene. “Oh but UFO’s! What is going on?” Never mind that nearly the entire Republican party backed Biden’s decision to break the threatened rail strike and that its whole ideology is unremittingly hostile to environmental regulation and worker-safety protections: the emerging theory is that Biden simply does not want anyone to know that white working-class folks in the heartland are suffering, because he regards them as non-persons or wishes to punish them for voting for Donald Trump.

This unexpected burst of right-wing fascination threatens to suck the disaster even further into the realm of hyperreality. On February 16, Fox News rebroadcast a video of newly elected Ohio Senator J.D. Vance wading through a visibly polluted creek near East Palestine, which he called “disgusting”—even though neither Fox nor Vance would ever support the kind of pro-worker, pro-environment reforms that would be necessary to take care of the area’s residents and prevent other catastrophic accidents in the future. Vance, like most of his party’s leaders, has perfected the art of “talking about it” (whatever it may be) without doing anything about it, or even demonstrating that he has any grasp on what doing something about it would entail. But Republicans aren’t the only ones who enjoy loudly protesting about silence. In the weeks after the train derailment, the question became inescapable, clogging the airwaves and social media feeds, precisely because it issued from both the left and the right: Why isn’t anyone talking about this?

This complaint gets the heart of the matter exactly backwards. It is not just that we are talking about what’s happening in East Palestine. It’s that it feels like we have always been talking about it. Zevon was talking about it and Tarkovsky was talking about it and the rail unions were talking about it for most of the last two years. My mother and I were talking about it, looking at each other in that nursing home. DeLillo was talking about it, and every literature scholar on the internet has been talking about DeLillo talking about it for weeks. A ghostly sense of folded time has stalked this story since its beginning. I’ve been reading about the disaster with the same vertiginous stomach-pit sensation I get when I see Jack Nicholson’s grinning face transplanted somehow into a photo from the 1920s in the last shot of The Shining. “Maybe when we die,” a character remarks in White Noise, “the first thing we’ll say is, ‘I know this feeling. I was here before.’”

When we say that no one is talking about this, what we really mean is that no one is talking about this—not the particular event, but the one single catastrophe, in Walter Benjamin’s words, that looms behind it and asserts itself spectrally in its every twist and turn. We mean that everyone is talking about it, but in a way that isn’t making a difference. All our talking has just been retracing the steps of a cycle whose grooves were carved before we were born. To say that no one is talking about this is to protest that no one realizes that what has happened before is happening again—because surely, if we realized, we wouldn’t be compelled to repeat it.

As a boy in Ohio I was obsessed with trains. Tracks ran behind our house and sometimes I would wake in the night to hear the rattle of the cars on the rails. One day we drove down from Cleveland into the country and stopped off at a carnival that had a train ride. A miniature Thomas the Tank Engine took the aspiring junior conductor round and round the circular track. Each time the ride came to an end I demanded to go once again. At some point the decrepit carnie turned to my father and cracked, with an emphysemic wheeze, “This ride, man—it’s like a drug.” He was right. It offered the same fantastic bargain as all intoxication: to move forever in circles and yet to feel like one is going somewhere.

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