Preventing Railroad Disasters / Open Lines

Hosted byIan Punnett

Preventing Railroad Disasters / Open Lines

About the show

In the first half, environmental consultant and safety expert Jim Poesl joined Ian Punnett (Twitter) to discuss the latest string of train accidents, and how they could be avoided and cleaned up. Poesl put the recent railway disaster in East Palestine, Ohio into context by providing some statistics: in 2022, there were 354 hazmat incidents and over a thousand derailments on American railroads. Roughly 60 percent of all railway incidents are due to human error, he added. Among the obstacles to preventing major accidents are the massive documentation that would be required to keep local governments constantly informed of what's being transported through their communities, regulations that railroad companies can easily work around, and an outdated definition of safety. While the traditional concept of safety is a "zero accidents, zero incidents" model, Poesl noted, a more effective safety policy would take into account the realities of operating a railroad system.

Any railway incident involving chlorine compounds—which includes the one in East Palestine—is particularly nasty and hazardous, explained Poesl. He asks four questions when approaching such dangerous situations: Is the air safe? How is air safety being measured? Which chemicals are involved? And, most important: were chemical samples taken in the area of the incident? This last question is where government agencies tend to fail, he said, but the State of Ohio and the EPA did complete onsite sampling in the case of East Palestine; sampling of public drinking water at the household level, however, has not been sampled.

Poesl described the "safety wars" going on in America today. On one side are citizens; on the other are threats to household, workplace, and environmental safety. These include workplaces in violation of safety regulations, as well as bureaucrats and politicians, many of whom enjoy sovereign immunity—legal protection from serious punishment. So it's up to citizens to advocate for ourselves, working to become aware and educated about issues like railroad safety.


In the Open Lines that followed in the second half, Supir in California suggested that while electric vehicles may be popular because they don't run on gasoline, it takes more manpower and water to extinguish them when they're on fire than do gas vehicles. She said she's in favor of people driving whatever type of vehicle they like, but that we should keep in mind that there are more factors than saving money on gas to consider.

Calling from North Carolina, Robert wondered about a possible connection between the recent movie White Noise, which was filmed in Northeast Ohio, and the recent East Palestine disaster. The plot of the movie and the real incident share some striking similarities—could the train derailment be intentional and somehow related to those involved with making the film?

Playing the role of Devil's Advocate was Dennis in Georgia, who questioned whether it was fair to put so much blame on railroad companies for accidents like East Palestine. We can't foresee getting flat tires on our cars, after all, so how can we be so quick to find fault with companies that fail to prevent major environmental disasters? Major corporations have made our lives so much better, he went on—maybe they deserve the benefit of the doubt in matters of public safety.

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