Rail union says Norfolk Southern endangered workers during East Palestine cleanup

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine at the microphone, at a podium marked: United States Environmental Protection Agency.

A railroad union has accused Norfolk Southern of endangering employees as they cleaned up last month’s toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

In a letter to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine dated March 1, a Teamsters official said that Norfolk Southern ordered 40 maintenance employees to the crash site but claimed that he had received reports that the company "neither offered nor provided these workers with appropriate personal protective equipment, such as respirators that are designed to permit safely working around vinyl chloride, eye protection and protective clothing such as chemical restraint suits, rubber overboots and rubber gloves rated for safely working around the spilled chemicals that prevent direct contact with such substances.”

Justin Long, general chairman of the American Rail System Federation, said one employee told Long that he had asked his supervisor if he could be transferred from the site because he was suffering nausea and migraines but he did not hear back, and that other workers received "little or no response" when they asked about the lack of PPE.

"Many other employees reported that they continue to experience migraines and nausea, days after the derailment, and they all suspect they were willingly exposed to these chemicals at the direction of [Norfolk Southern],” Long added.

Ron Fodo, in fluorescent yellow jacket, stirs the creek with a shovel to check on the presence of fish, behind a yellow plastic barrier laid across the water.
Ron Fodo, of Ohio EPA Emergency Response, looks for signs of fish in Leslie Run creek on Feb. 20, checking for chemicals that settled at the bottom after the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

In a statement to Yahoo News responding to the letter, the company said, “In East Palestine, Norfolk Southern was on-scene immediately after the derailment and coordinated our response with hazardous material professionals who were on site continuously to ensure the work area was safe to enter and the required PPE was utilized, all in addition to air monitoring that was established within an hour.”

Rail unions have been battling for paid sick leave and against Precision Scheduled Railroading, a system intended to maximize efficiency that results in longer, heavier trains. It has also resulted in a reduction in the number of workers, which railroad unions say has led to more cursory inspections and trains that are less safe.

The Norfolk Southern train derailed minutes from the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on the evening of Feb. 3, with the governors of both states issuing a joint evacuation order for a roughly 1-mile radius, since 11 of the cars contained hazardous materials. On Feb. 6, the Norfolk Southern burned off five tankers full of vinyl chloride in what it said was an effort to avoid a catastrophic explosion, resulting in images of a giant toxic smoke plume that quickly circulated on social media. Two days later, residents were urged to return home, despite the lingering smell in the air and reports of such symptoms as dizziness, headaches and rashes.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board released last week did not provide a conclusive cause of the crash, but said an overheated wheel bearing on the first car to go off the tracks was being investigated.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in East Palestine, Ohio, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Matt Freed/AP Photo)
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in East Palestine, Ohio, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Matt Freed/AP Photo)

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro is among those accusing Norfolk Southern of prioritizing a speedy reopening of the railroad over safety concerns. Last month, the EPA sent a letter to Norfolk Southern saying the company had failed to properly dispose of contaminated soil at the crash site.

While state and federal officials have repeatedly said that testing has shown no contamination and have made a show of drinking from the municipal water supply, residents have continued to express skepticism about the safety of the air, soil and water in the area. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said last week that the crash resulted in the death of 43,000 animals in the area, the majority of which were minnows in the local waterways.

Legislation to increase rail safety has been introduced in both the Senate and House this week. The United States experiences an average of more than 1,000 train derailments a year, many of them affecting small communities like East Palestine. Anne Junod, a senior research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute who has studied catastrophic train derailments at Ohio State, told Yahoo News, “This is the cost of doing business. It's just that these costs are being externalized mostly to these very small communities that are becoming victimized by these catastrophes.

“People are incredibly distressed, and there are effects we see over the long term years from now in other communities that have experienced this type of catastrophe,” Junod added. “You see PTSD, you see depression, you see anxiety at levels that didn't exist before.”