People love disasters (as long as they’re not personally involved). Hollywood has known that for years, with a century’s worth of disaster movies chronicling every kind of natural and supernatural catastrophe you can think of. It doesn’t really matter when or where the disaster happened—moviegoers will flock in droves to see lots and lots of mayhem and destruction, whether it be from volcanoes (“The Last Days of Pompeii,” 1935), earthquakes (“Earthquake,” 1974), tornadoes (“Twister,” 1996), hurricanes (“The Perfect Storm,” 2000), or floods (“The Day After Tomorrow,” 2004). And if the disaster happens to involve negligence or poor planning by corporate types, then just watch the box office soar: “The Towering Inferno” (1974), “Erin Brockovich” (2000), “Contagion” (2011), or the granddaddy of all disaster flicks, “Titanic” (1997).
As you would expect, safety professionals are particularly interested in real-life disasters, especially if the catastrophe seems almost cinematic in its impact. Some of the most popular articles we’ve ever run at EHS Today, which continue to be among our most-read features even many years later, include these headlines-based items:
- The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire,
- Photos from the Deadly Yarnell Hill Fire,
- Five Years Later: Remembering the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,
- Hard Rock New Orleans: Multiple Failures Led to Deadly Collapse and
- Five Safety Lessons Learned from the Sinking of the Titanic.
And that’s not even including our coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, which set new records for visits to our website.
It’s far too early to know if the latest news-dominating disaster—the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment and aftermath—will achieve the same level of notoriety as the aforementioned calamities. After all, the public’s attention span has never been shorter, and the national media has already moved on to coverage of the banking crisis, March Madness and the latest AI chatbots.
But it’s still quite astonishing how the entire rail industry—and not just one train operated by Norfolk Southern—has gone offtrack lately, with even its strongest advocates finding it hard to explain exactly why any community should feel at ease when a chemical-carrying train rumbles through its environs.
As contributing editor (and rail industry expert) David Sparkman has observed, “Even before the Ohio incident, freight railroads were in trouble with the federal government in the form of investigations, service orders and threatened fines being pursued by the Surface Transportation Board (STB), which supervises the freight railroads’ economic practices involving their customers, including service quality, and how they apply freight rates along with demurrage and other fees.” And since the derailment, various government bodies and regulatory agencies have started looking into all the myriad ways things have gone wrong lately:
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is testing the air, water, soil and sediment in East Palestine for potential contamination from hazardous materials released and burned after the derailment, ostensibly to avoid the railcars from causing even worse damage to the area and its residents.
- The National Transportation Safety Board is studying the aluminum protective housing covers used on three of the derailed vinyl chloride tank cars.
- The State of Ohio is suing Norfolk Southern, alleging numerous violations of Ohio’s hazardous waste, water pollution, solid waste and air pollution control laws. According to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, the derailment “was entirely avoidable.”
- There’s also some lingering doubt as to why it took so long for the federal government, in particular the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to arrive on the scene.
If you’re a fan of disaster movies, you know that inevitably there’s a big debate over who knew what and when, culminating in a big courtroom scene dominated by well-dressed lawyers, and a resolution by everybody involved that “nothing like this will ever happen again.” But in typical Hollywood fashion, the final scene of the movie cynically suggests that things will probably go on like they did before.
Let’s hope the rail industry gets its safety act together quickly and that the regulatory agencies avoid political posturing as they clean up the situation. We need a better ending to this latest disaster story.