The head of a major railroad union confronted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday with allegations that some Norfolk Southern railroad workers have taken ill at the site of the railway's catastrophic toxic spill in East Palestine, Ohio.
Jonathon Long, the general chairman of the American Rail System Federation, accused Norfolk Southern of putting workers' health at risk at least in part due to its "cost-cutting business model."
He suggested further that the company "and other railroads alike must be held accountable in their operations, through rule-making and regulatory reform that establishes minimum safety standards in their operations."
In his March 1 letter to Buttigieg, entitled "Norfolk Southern Is Dangerous to America," Long, whose union represents workers on the Norfolk Southern Railroad, noted that while "the world was learning about the horrors occurring in East Palestine on television, NS officials assessed the damages and carried out their plans for rebuilding their track structure so that they could get trains moving again."
According to Long, the railroad's alleged prioritization of resuming business, as opposed to first adequately addressing safety and health concerns after the derailment, reflected the interests of shareholders and Wall Street, contra the well-being of those in the disaster area.
While East Palestine residents were ordered to evacuate amid the release of trench warfare gas — the result of the railroad's combustion of its toxic cargo — Long noted that the approximately 40 Norfolk Southern maintenance-of-way employees tasked with cleaning up the wreckage were neither offered nor provided with "appropriate personal protective equipment."
Among the items of PPE the workers had allegedly done without but needed were: "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."
Workers allegedly replaced cabin filters on the derailment site and conducted deep cleanings of machinery used by outside contractors in cleanup, efforts all without appropriate protective equipment.
One worker reportedly told Long that the chemicals released in the derailment caused him to suffer nausea and migraines. Upon expressing this and other health concerns to his supervisor, he was allegedly ghosted.
"Many other Employees reported that they continue to experience migraines and nausea, days after the derailment," wrote Long. "They all suspect that they were willingly exposed to these chemicals at the direction of NS. This lack of concern for the Workers' safety and well-being is, again, a basic tenet of NS' cost-cutting business model."
TheBlaze previously reported that independent analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data concerning the fallout of the derailment has revealed that, contrary to previous claims made by EPA officials, there continue to be abnormally high levels of airborne toxins that could jeopardize the long-term health of residents in the area.
In a nearly identical letter to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), Long emphasized that action needs to be taken "before more trains go off the rails in communities like East Palestine and endure the sorrows that follow such senseless, preventable disasters."
"[Norfolk Southern] has pierced itself, but it has somehow left communities like East Palestine and the NS Workers with the many sorrows," said the letter. "This is immoral, and it is all because of the railroad's cost-cutting business model that disregards the sanctity of human life for the sake of more record profits."
Norfolk Southern, which reportedly has greased politicians' hands to the tune of nearly $100 million since 1990, told Axios that the company 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."
Buttigieg, who didn't make a public statement about the disaster until 10 days after the derailment and didn't make it to East Palestine for another 10 days, met with railroad union heads and Amit Bose, the top official at the Federal Railroad Administration, on Wednesday to discuss the disaster and potential safety improvements.
Having ostensibly dropped the ball on East Palestine, the FRA and Buttigieg announced a national initiative "for focused inspections on routes that carry high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) and other trains carrying large volumes of hazmat commodities."
"Safety is always our number one priority, and the Norfolk Southern derailment reminds us of the importance of ensuring no industry can put its profits over the safety of its workers and the communities it serve," said Buttigieg.
Bose said, "FRA is vigorously responding to the concerns expressed by residents of East Palestine and the surrounding areas, and as a result of the recent derailment, we are ramping up our safety efforts across the country."
The DOT will also purportedly seek to implement a rule requiring two-person train crews as well as target legacy tank cars, particularly those carrying hazmat, for inspections and safety reviews.
WEWS-TV reported that Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw is expected to testify before the Republican-controlled Congress next week over the derailment and the company's hand in recovery efforts.
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