Ohio train derailment could have been prevented. Pete Buttigieg needs to do his job.

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“They feel that they can take advantage of us because we are a smaller town," a resident of East Palestine, Ohio, told CBC News. "What rolls through on those trucks is of more value than the lives of the residents in this community.”

The words of this American capture the perspective of East Palestine residents who are living in an apocalyptic landscape because of the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals.

In any functional society, the wreck of a massive, 150-car train and the emergence of a black cloud that threatens thousands of U.S. citizens would prompt an immediate, comprehensive response from government officials and the rail firms responsible.

In President Joe Biden’s America, the people of East Palestine were left scrambling in the dark, with, until Thursday, an absentee Transportation secretary, a struggling Environmental Protection Agency and industry representatives who won’t answer basic questions.

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The consequences should be swift and severe. This winter, we’ve seen disaster after disaster strike our national transportation system – from crippling flight cancellations and delays in January to multiple near misses on airport runways across the country to the derailment outside East Palestine.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 6, 2023.
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 6, 2023.

Buttigieg waited 17 days to visit East Palestine

It was an opportunity for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who nearly three weeks after the derailment visited East Palestine on Thursday, to claim responsibility and demonstrate his ability to reinstate safety and security. Instead, he laughs about his failures, blames the Trump administration and gives speeches about racism in transportation rather than adequately addressing immediate concerns.

That is unacceptable. If this secretary won’t do his job, President Biden should find someone else who will.

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But there is more at play with the train wreck than incompetent bureaucrats. What is happening in East Palestine points beyond the Transportation Department to a deeper, broader problem in our nation – the effects of a decadeslong obsession with economic efficiency.

There was a time when American corporations understood their welfare was tied to that of the American people. They knew that their interests could not be divorced from the national interest or the interests of the communities they served without things going haywire. Sadly, that time is now just a memory. For years, major corporations have ditched corporate patriotism for the theory of shareholder primacy and the corresponding pursuit of short-term profits.

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That led to the offshoring of manufacturing, which wreaked havoc on factory towns across the country and created dependence on foreign nations, including adversaries like China, for critical medicines, minerals and more.

The obsession with short-term profits also created just-in-time inventory management, which produced national shortages when the pandemic unwound global supply chains. During good times, delivering goods with no margin for error worked fine. During bad times, however, our lack of resilience proved disastrous.

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No industry escaped the demands of globalization and Wall Street. In the rail industry, they caused the spread of precision-scheduled railroading, or PSR, by which firms lower operating costs by relying on the smallest number of employees for the longest trains possible.

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Rail workers put in long hours on the job

PSR increased profits for shareholders, but it has led to the abuse of rail workers, who are forced to work long hours without leave and face retaliation for calling in sick – the grievances that prompted last year’s threatened rail strike.

PSR has also made our rail networks more fragile and accident-prone. America began waking up to this problem late last year. I warned then that the system was dangerously flawed, and now we’re seeing the consequences of those flaws in awful reality.

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This is what happens when workers become line items on a spreadsheet and a small town becomes nothing more than a dot on a map in an ocean of consumers. The Biden administration and Norfolk Southern railway need to do right by the people of East Palestine, and it is time lawmakers do right by the American people.

Sen. Marco Rubio is a Republican from Florida.
Sen. Marco Rubio is a Republican from Florida.

For decades, our policies prioritized efficiency over resiliency and rewarded globalism instead of patriotism. That needs to change. We cannot allow ourselves to become a country that values sales and deliveries more than the lives of our citizens and the health of our communities. If we do, more disasters are sure to follow.

Sen. Marco Rubio is a Republican from Florida.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio derailment marks another Pete Buttigieg, Biden failure