For Teaneck resident and veteran environmental activist Paula Rogovin, it was the catastrophic oil train derailment disaster in Lac-Mégnatic, Quebec in 2013 that prompted her to add promoting rail safety to her full activism portfolio that included environmental and other social justice issues.
Rogovin has six grandchildren and over 47 years' experience working as a New York City elementary school teacher. She has been conditioned over her lifetime to anticipate how things could go wrong and then taking action to head off a calamity when kids were at stake. So, the Quebec disaster got her to thinking about just how vulnerable her own Bergen County rail corridor community would be to a similar accident.
Back in 2013, a little after 1 a.m. on a summer night, Lac-Mégnatic was hit by a run-away driverless freight train heavy with Bakken crude oil that had originated in North Dakota. The derailment and ensuing conflagration incinerated half of the village killing 47 people. A large percentage of the dead were local young people out at a local bar.
40 of the village's downtown buildings were leveled by the explosions and fires. Of the 39 structures that survived the blasts and blaze, just three were left standing because the rest had to be razed due to the petrochemical contamination.
In the years since, Rogovin and her Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains, worked with former Senator Loretta Weinberg to try and get Trenton to enact the former Majority Leader's commonsense rail safety bill that was prompted by a 2012 derailment in Paulsboro in Gloucester County, adjacent to the Delaware River.
TOO CLOSE TO IGNORE
"I live two short blocks from the tracks—the CSX line. So, we have the same stuff going through like vinyl chloride," Rogovin told InsiderNJ during a phone Feb. 24 interview. "We had for years Bakken crude, ethanol—we have everything– the same stuff going through here. I am absolutely terrified about it—we all are. It is really scary."
In that Jersey derailment, 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride were released, sickening dozens of people. Earlier this month, in East Palestine, Ohio over 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride had to be vented and burned off to prevent a cataclysmic chain reaction. Officials were concerned that without the intervention, the five tanker cars with the vinyl chloride would explode sending shrapnel flying on a cloud of phosgene, which was weaponized so effectively in WW I.
Rogovin and her fellow rail safety advocates wanted Trenton to require rail operators to provide advance notice for when the rail carriers were moving hazardous cargo through the state's corridor communities which overwhelmingly rely on volunteer first responders. They also wanted a response plan in place for a spill or accident with a hazmat clean-up plan and liability insurance to be on file. The package also called for additional track inspections as well as more safety monitoring along with providing public notice.
"If it happened here, we have 11 towns where these trains go through and then we have Newark and Jersey City with such a density of population. We've tried so hard to get a bill passed—Loretta Weinberg's bill. We tried since 2014 to get the bill passed and on the last day of the last session—after it had been through the full Assembly, the Senate, it had passed and then it was just pulled."
What seems to trouble Rogovin most, is that when it comes to the railroads, the government and both the state and federal level are so seemingly detached from the kind of urgency that Rogovin and other corridor community activists feel because the stakes are so high.
"We've had to fight to get the bridge repaired over the Oradell Reservoir that serves 800,000 people," Rogovin said. "We had to fight for a year to get that bridge repaired. The government itself—the NJ DEP, the EPA hasn't done enough."
So surely, things went down differently in Canada in response to the 2012 mass casualty event after a Canadian Safety Board investigation flagged multiple factors including leaving a train unattended on a downhill gradient, grueling rail staffing policies that left workers fatigued, as well as a lax safety culture.
"Yet despite repeated calls in Canada for a special inquiry into the disaster and rail safety in general, none was ever convened," reported the New York Times. "And a decade later, many rail safety experts say that changes to rules and how railways are regulated fall short of what is needed to avoid a repeat of the devastation — a consequence, they say, of rail industry pushback."
HEALTH CONCERNS PERSIST
In the weeks since the East Palestine derailment, Ohio officials have documented that over 43,000 fish and amphibians have died within a five-mile radius of the derailment. State and federal officials insisted that it was safe for residents to return to their homes from which they were initially ordered to evacuate. But officials have also set up public health clinics to address persistent complaints from residents about rashes and respiratory issues since their exposure.
NBC News reported that residents and workers near the site "have been diagnosed with bronchitis and other conditions that doctors and nurses suspect are linked to chemical exposure."
"Melissa Blake, who lives within a mile of the crash site in East Palestine, Ohio, said she started coughing up gray mucus and was struggling to breathe on Feb. 5, two days after the Norfolk Southern train derailed," NBC reported. "That day she evacuated her home and also went to the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with 'acute bronchitis due to chemical fumes,' according to medical records reviewed by NBC News.
Blake told NBC she was given a breathing machine and prescribed three types of steroids.
According to the Washington Post, an independent review of the EPA's East Palestine data found that the presence of nine air pollutants at levels, "that if they persist, could raise long term health concerns in and around East Palestine."
"In its examination of EPA data, the Texas A&M researchers found elevated levels of chemicals known to trigger eye and lung irritation, headaches, and other symptoms, as well as some that are known or suspected to cause cancer," the Washington Post reported. One of the Texas A&M researchers told the newspaper it "would take months, if not years, of exposure to the pollutants for serious health effects."
John Harvey, president of Ohio's Association of Professional Firefighters, is also a captain on the Middletown, Ohio Fire Department and leads that city's HazMat response team. He's concerned about the long-term health impact from the East Palestine derailment fire on both volunteer and professional firefighters.
"We have to make sure they are taken care of immediately and that they are getting check-ups so that we have a baseline of where they are at and then looking further out, as the years go by-that the care is followed up on to make sure that if there are illnesses that are linked to this, that they are taken care of," Harvey said.
RUN AWAY TRAIN LOBBY
When it comes to the railroads, the fix has been in for a really long time. It's embedded in the DNA of the American political economy.
Once Congress gave millions of acres of land to the railroads that belonged to America's Indigenous nations, the big rail carriers have enjoyed a kind of quasi-governmental sovereign immunity. Since the 1980s, when there were close to 50 Class I rail freight railroads, Wall Street consolidated them into just seven 21st century trusts that in recent years raked in tens of billions of dollars, while they slashed their workforce by 30 percent.
According to Open Secrets in the last decade the railroads have spent $285 million on lobbying and close to $50 million on Congressional donation with close to $30 million going to Republicans and $19 million on Democrats. According to NJELEC data, railroads, including Norfolk Southern has been handing out money to Trenton lawmakers as well.
At a Feb. 23 National Transportation Safety Board press conference that coincided with the agency's release of its preliminary East Palestine findings, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy described how a wheel bearing on the ill-fated Norfolk Southern train had been running hot before it set off a sensor alerting the train crew, only registering an alarm when the wheel bearing reached 253 degrees above the ambient temperature.
"The warning threshold is set by railroads, and again it varies by railroad," Homendy told reporters. "We are going to look at that and see if that threshold should change. That's going to be one of our priorities in this investigation."
Homendy continued. "I will tell you that had there been a detector earlier, that derailment may not have occurred. But that's something we have to look at. And we have to look at the lack of federal regulations– see if there's any guidance from the Association of American Railroads on that and what they follow. But that is definitely something we have to look at because there is a great amount of variance between different railroads."
According to Open Secrets, it's the Association of American Railroads that spent $4.74 million in 2022 on lobbying Congress.
As it turns out whatever the NTSB investigation turns up in the East Palestine probe, any recommendations they make are just that, recommendations that the railroads are free to ignore.
"It is frustrating when our recommendations don't get implemented," Homendy said. "It is particularly frustrating for our investigators when they go to an accident scene and say 'I saw this one [before] why wasn't it addressed'…. That is frustrating."