Train Wreck: Political Sideshow Descends On Ohio Crash Site
KRISTIN: Hi. This is Kristin (ph).
HAYDEN: And this is Hayden (ph).
KRISTIN: And we're practicing riding bikes. This podcast was recorded at...
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
2:21 p.m. on Monday, February 27.
KRISTIN: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but we'll still be out here.
HAYDEN: Riding our bike.
DAVIS: Aw (ph).
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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I do remember the first time I learned how to ride a bike. You never forget that feeling.
DAVIS: I have to say that I am so nervous that, as my kids have been trying to learn how to ride their bikes, I actually can't be anywhere near them.
KEITH: Because it makes you too nervous they're going to fall.
DAVIS: It makes me too nervous that they're going to fall, that I'm going to impose my nervousness on them. And therefore, I go away (laughter). I think they'll figure it out.
KEITH: I think they will.
DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And David Schaper is here. He covers transportation for NPR. Hey, David.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Hi, guys. Thanks for having me.
DAVIS: So earlier this month, a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern that was carrying hazardous chemicals derailed near the town of East Palestine, Ohio, and caught fire. A state of emergency was declared, and the risks to the health of the community there has been a focus for federal and state officials. David, this is not new in the news, but it's the first time we are discussing it on the podcast. So can you step back and tell us what's known about what caused this freight train to derail? And how significant is the amount of hazardous chemicals that has been exposed to the town?
SCHAPER: Well, the train derailed because of a problem with an axle on a wheel set in one of the freight cars. So according to the National Transportation Safety Board, the wheel bearings - this is a little more technical than you probably want it to be, but - were heating up. It actually caught fire before the axle just failed. And that car - which was the 23rd car out of 150 on this train - once the axle broke, couldn't stay on the rails. And it went off, and about 38 other cars joined it in a big pile-up. And some of those cars were carrying hazardous materials, you know, kind of nasty chemicals that exploded and caught fire. Some of the tank cars were still contained, but they were heating up because of the fire in the nearby cars. And there is a lot of concern amongst the first responders there and the company that owns the train that was running the train, Norfolk Southern. So they actually did a controlled burn to release some of the chemicals that they thought otherwise might explode and cause quite a devastating explosion.
DAVIS: I imagine with most environmental disasters, too, there's the short-term problem, but there's also long-term questions that we can't really answer yet of what the effects could be over the course of a long period of time.
SCHAPER: Right. And that's what a lot of folks are concerned about right now - is, you know, now we're more than three weeks past the date of the original derailment. And, you know, the cleanup continues. And there's been a lot of hazardous materials that have been rounded up and a lot of soil that has been taken out and even some water from a nearby stream that has been removed from the area and shipped elsewhere. A lot of this contaminated waste has to go somewhere. So it's going to go to landfills and other places elsewhere. But there's a lot of concern now about the shipping of those contaminated waste materials. There's a lot of concern about where they're going to end up. And there's a lot of concern about what's still left behind and how long it might be there.
DAVIS: Tam, the president has been pretty clear that he puts the responsibility on the company, on Norfolk Southern, to pay for the cleanup effort. How else has the administration responded to this? And we should note it's also been subjected to a fair amount of criticism, at least from its political opponents.
KEITH: A huge amount of criticism, arguing, among other things, that President Biden should have gone there to East Palestine instead of, for instance, going to Kyiv, Ukraine. The White House has pushed back, including the president, very hard on this, saying, no, this community hasn't been forgotten. And in fact, the administration had people responding there on the ground within a couple of hours of the derailment happening. That's what the president said on Friday.
And then additionally, the White House has been providing extensive timelines of all of their involvement. You know, not much of it has been at the presidential level other than a few phone calls to the governors saying that he would do anything that needed to be done, anything they asked. But most of it has been cabinet-level officials and lower-level government agency heads and others doing the work on the ground, including over this past weekend. Employees of the Environmental Protection Agency, FEMA and the CDC went door to door doing health checks, checking in on people in this community, giving them flyers and additional resources. They had reached about 350 households by the end of the weekend, and they were aiming for 400 by the end of the day today.
DAVIS: David, one of the reasons why I think that this story has gotten so much attention is the visuals, the images of these huge plumes of black smoke coming over the town. I mean, it looked like a bomb went off in East Palestine. Can you give some perspective to what it's going to take to clean up something like this and how it might compare to other environmental disasters that people might remember - things like oil spills or other chemical disasters?
SCHAPER: Yeah, it's a pretty big task because, you know, like I said, there's 38 rail cars that actually went off the tracks. Not all of them had toxic chemicals in them, but 11 of them did. Now, some of those they released and burned. So it went up into the air. That was the vinyl chloride from some of these tanker cars. And that's what caused the massive flames shooting up and the black smoke billowing into the sky. And then the way it hung, like, just, like, this really menacing ceiling over the community was quite frightening for a lot of people. And even though the substances in the air dissipated and, you know, air testing has - even indoors has been deemed safe by the EPA as well as state and local health officials who are on site, there are a lot of people concerned about, you know, the soot that maybe landed on their cars and on their backyards and all the material that has to be cleaned up and scraped up.
Meanwhile, the soil - there were chemicals that seeped into the soil. So they're excavating in and around the rail derailment site. In fact, they're going to actually have to move the tracks at some point and basically, you know, scrape up and shovel up all of the dirt that is underneath the rails themselves and then put them back. So it's a major task that's going to take at least months. And, you know, we could be still be talking about this and people maybe still testing the water and testing the air for years to come.
DAVIS: David, I'm curious how the rail unions have responded because this is a group that has not only had tensions with the private companies that run these railroads, but they've also had tensions of late with the Biden administration.
SCHAPER: Right. You know, we went through this near strike in the fall - a couple of times, actually - where the Biden administration actually stepped in and imposed terms of a new contract to keep the railroad workers from going on strike. And a lot of the unions were not completely happy with that deal. And one of the big sticking points for the railroad unions has been that railroads have been trimming and trimming back, cutting staff levels over the last maybe six to eight years as they've gone to this new precision-style of scheduling that makes them run more efficiently with fewer employees.
But what the unions say that has happened is that there are fewer employees across the board. So it's not just, you know, in certain levels of the operation that are being replaced by, you know, technology, but it's also, you know, the amount of time people have to do inspections. They used to have a couple of minutes to do each inspection, and now it's down to under a minute for inspecting each rail car. They've been warning that some things might be falling through the cracks in terms of safety inspections. They say that something like this was bound to happen as a result.
DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about the politics around this in a second.
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DAVIS: And we're back. And this is just the latest in a number of high-profile crises that the transportation department has faced under Secretary Pete Buttigieg - thinking of things like the FAA communications meltdown that affected air travel, ongoing problems with the supply chain, especially during the pandemic. You know, Tam, for Buttigieg, as sort of his own selfish aspiring politician reasons, he has had a very rocky tenure as the transportation secretary.
KEITH: Well, and I think part of the reason it has been rocky is because the transportation secretary is not front of mind, right? But because Pete Buttigieg ran for president in the last cycle, is seen as someone who is widely thought to have a political future or at least want to have a political future, he has become a target of a lot of political ire from Republicans. The point is that Secretary Buttigieg has gotten a huge amount of attention over this train derailment, more so than, for instance, the EPA administrator, Michael Regan, who actually visited East Palestine a few days before Buttigieg did. So it is this very interesting thing where there is this person with political ambition and because of that - or maybe not - but he's getting an outsized amount of attention about it.
DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, Republicans - particularly in conservative media outlets, this has been a huge topic of focus. Donald Trump, who is running again in 2024, did make a point to visit East Palestine. And Republicans seem to be trying to make a point here about, you know, these are the forgotten people, right? Like, that's - this is the argument Trump has made, that Joe Biden doesn't care about the kind of people that live here. And the subtext is that East Palestine is, you know, mainly a white, working-class kind of place.
KEITH: I don't think it's subtext. I think it's text. I think they've been...
DAVIS: Yeah. They're not whispering. They're shouting.
KEITH: ...Very clear that they are criticizing President Biden for not caring about these people because they are white, working-class and rural and Republican.
DAVIS: David, from your perspective, is there a bigger dot to connect here about the substance, about the infrastructure questions here? I mean, one of the facts that I read that kind of blew my mind is that there's at least a thousand train derailments a year in this country. This is not a unique event, although the scale of this one is obviously more impactful. I mean, the country does seem to have an infrastructure problem. And while Congress has recently passed a new law, and there's more money going out into the system, this is something that people in your arena have been talking about for decades, that the country's infrastructure is weak and getting weaker.
SCHAPER: The 1,000 or so derailments that we have each year - that's actually fallen in the last decade or so. It used to be upwards of 2,000 or more. And most of these are very minor. You know, sometimes they're in rail yards themselves where a train goes off the track. We have a lot of incidents in this country of cars that are stuck on tracks at grade crossings that get hit by trains. But yeah, there are there are derailments. There is a lot of rail infrastructure. The thing about the railroad infrastructure in this country is unlike our highways, these rails are almost all privately owned. And therefore it is up to the railroads themselves to maintain them and to maintain their rail cars - their stock of rail cars that is rolling over them, the locomotives that are pulling the trains and pushing the trains. And so a lot of it is in private hands. And the Federal Railroad Administration has the authority to supervise, if you will, and inspect the track and make sure that the railroads are doing what they say that they're doing. But that's an agency that's also stretched pretty thin in terms of their own inspection authority.
There is federal money coming in the infrastructure law that was passed last year that will help support some rail projects - freight rail projects across the country. And I think most of the money that the federal government wants to spend is to actually ensure that the rails themselves are safer, that trains stay on the track and - but a significant amount of the money that the federal government is putting under the infrastructure law into rail is going to be to support passenger rail. Now, a lot of Amtrak trains outside of the northeast corridor run almost completely on freight rail tracks. So there is going to be some investment that will help the freight railroads because it's also helping the trains that Amtrak is running on those tracks, so - but it remains to be seen. I mean, this investment is just starting, and we don't know how soon a lot of the money is going to go out and how long these projects are going to take. So it may be a while before we see significant improvements to the rail infrastructure across the country.
DAVIS: And I should note, House Republicans are already indicating that they plan to have hearings over this train derailment, so I'm sure we'll have more to say about it in the future. David, thank you so much for joining the pod today.
SCHAPER: Oh, it's my pleasure.
DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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