East Palestine, Ohio: Race and class in conflict


On Feb. 3, many of us encountered the horrific image of a train derailment that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio the same day. The train, owned and operated by Norfolk Southern Corporation, one of the largest transportation companies in the United States, weighed 18,000 tons and was 9,300 feet long. From what Norfolk Southern rank-and-file believe was the train’s excessive size and weight, the fated Train 32N was stopped by technical failures just days earlier. Matters worsened when a defect detector measured that an axle on the train was 53 to 83 degrees Fahrenheit over the “critical” temperature required to stop the train. Stopping the vehicle didn’t prevent the situation from unraveling into a calamity.  

Aerial photos of the disaster — and it is, by all means, a disaster — capture 38 derailed train cars scattered among ash and hazardous waste like a fallen tower of Jenga blocks. A thick, black plume of smoke engulfed the small Ohio town like scenes from an apocalypse thriller. The towering pillar of chemicals was the result of a “controlled explosion” conducted on Monday, Feb. 6 by Norfolk Southern to manage the over 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, both toxic and flammable compounds, contained in the train’s cars.  

As one might imagine, the impacts of the derailment and subsequent controlled release are still developing. When Ohio Governor Mike DeWine addressed the state at the beginning of the controlled release — a term which feels slightly oxymoronic in nature — he noted that the dangers of vinyl chloride inhalation include lung damage and death, not to mention the potential of violent skin burns. Only two days after the release of hazardous chemicals from the train began, however, the evacuation order around East Palestine was lifted, and air and water quality within the one-mile evacuation radius were deemed safe. In spite of the go-ahead from municipal authorities, the number of dead aquatic animals attributed to chemicals in the environment has increased to 43,000, local residents are receiving increasing diagnoses of “chemical bronchitis” and, at a hearing hosted by Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Ohio), frustrated constituents testified to experiencing “burning lips, itchy eyes, rashes, diarrhea and other symptoms” associated with chemical exposure. 

The anger of Ohioans is justified further by the fact that safety regulators and state officials alike consider the derailment to have been “100% preventable” in the first place, being on the heels of extensive lobbying efforts by the rail industry across the country and in Ohio to skirt by profit-lagging regulations imposing speed and weight limits. Thus, a forceful and sympathetic political response in the immediate days following the disaster would have been critical. 

A sign of support greets motorists following the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Photo by Matt Freed/AP

Why, then, did former President Donald Trump and his hand-picked Senator, white nationalist talking head and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), get the jump on visiting East Palestine before any national Democratic figure? Trump and Vance managed to visit the town one day prior to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to placate a vocally enthusiastic audience and accuse the Biden administration of “indifference and betrayal,” having “forgotten” the people of the small, 95% white Ohio county. Buttigieg, on the other hand, offered a polite and decidedly less energizing appeal to the rail industry to “stop fighting” the Biden administration on regulations.  

President Biden himself, in the aftermath of the disaster, made the decision to travel to Kyiv and announce an additional $500 million in military aid to Ukraine, a move which drew intense ire from East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, as well as a host of Republicans.  

Buttigieg’s dissatisfying response at best implies an equal partnership between the federal government and the rail industry whose negligence caused this environmental crisis. Moreover, Biden’s expressed lack of intentions to visit East Palestine suggests his administration desires business as usual between the timid regulatory state and powerful, ferociously anti-regulation corporations. Still, one might ask why and how high-level Democrats could have fumbled such an opportunity to provide respite to the beleaguered town, therefore “handing” the good optics to Republicans? 

Democrats likely seem all too willing to allow this latest crisis to fall victim to America’s short political memory because they know they wouldn’t have benefited as a party machine in the first place. In every national election since 2000, Colombiana County has voted for Republicans by a dramatically-increasing margin. Paired with majority-white racial demographics, Colombiana County has long been a prime environment for Republicans to galvanize the mythic “working class white” population who, having been caught in the crossfire of automation, globalization and American economic imperialism, feel left behind by the political establishment. Cynically, Democrats can afford to leave this month’s events to the annals of history, where the political memory of the majority of the country goes to die before the next eventual crisis of racial capitalism can be exploited for one party’s political clout. Ohioans, though, will not forget. The tragedy of East Palestine presages a bitter 2024 presidential election, with the manufactured and weaponized identity of the “white working class” once again taking the reins and obscuring the commitments of both political parties to the forces that produce poverty, inequality and crisis in the first place. 

Leave a Reply